Welcome to the plastic surgery capital of the world
When I enter JK Plastic Surgery Clinic in Seoul's "beauty belt," the strip of plastic surgery clinics in the Gangnam district, a pretty receptionist greets me.
I can't help but look at her doll-like features and wonder if she, too, has gone under the knife.
Statistically, it's not out of the question.
According to a report from The Economist Online, a 2009 Trend Monitor survey says that one in five Korean women have had plastic surgery.
In a luxuriously decorated room at the clinic, I speak to "Lucy," a 27-year-old graduate student of education from Beijing. We talk through an in-hospital translator.
Lucy has come to get her face done, but she isn't quite sure what yet.
"The eyes, and maybe some other things," she says.
But why Korea?
"We have hospitals in China, too," says Lucy. "But Korea is known for being the best place to get it done."
"I saw my friends go to Korea to get plastic surgery and become prettier, and I want to become prettier, too,” says Lucy.
Korea is gaining a reputation as a plastic surgery mecca, a place where doctors are highly skilled, citizens are more than willing and the technology is top-notch.
People from all over the world come to have their noses tweaked, chins thinned and fat removed and occasionally grafted onto another part of their face.
It’s not just a female thing -- males make up at least 30 percent of JK Plastic Surgery Clinic's patients.
While opinions on the merits of such a reputation may differ, the Korean medical travel industry is avidly welcoming international medical tourists with benefits and amenities like hotel-hospital hybrids or multilingual round-the-clock assistance.
JK Plastic Surgery Clinic's foreign patients account for about 40 to 50 percent of the total number of patients. Of the foreign patients, Chinese make up about 70 percent.
Hotels, such as the Ritz-Carlton Seoul, have partnered with hospitals with a US$88,000 "anti-aging beauty package," opened with their spa partner Possom Prestige in December 2011.
In addition to predictable spa treatments such as skin care and health checkups, the package includes stem cell treatment and plastic surgery.
Patients can get double eyelid surgery and face lifts at the in-house clinic and go straight to their suites to recover, without venturing into the streets looking like the loser of a bar fight.
While hotels are teaming up with hospitals, more hospitals are now offering their own hotel-level lodgings and services.
Sun Medical Center in Daejeon -- a general hospital with an ER and ICU -- runs a "one-stop service," shuttling international patients coming directly from Incheon International Airport via the KTX (express train) straight to their hospital.
It helps that their recuperating rooms enjoy great views that, despite the white walls, resemble cheery hotel suites rather than places for the ill and infirmed.
JK Plastic Surgery Clinic has also built a shiny new hospital-hotel a five-minute walk from its headquarters.
Both JK and Sun Medical Center employ bilingual Chinese staff to assist with Chinese patients -- of the 672 patients at Sun Medical Center in the first half of this year, 221 were Chinese.
Sun Medical Center has a team of not only Chinese, but also Russian and Mongolian natives on hand 24 hours to answer questions and translate.
"We make it a point to hire Chinese staff rather than Korean staff who speak Chinese,” says Dr. Joo Kwon, who heads JK Plastic Surgery Clinic.
“It's not just about communication, it's about making the patients feel comfortable.”
Historical and cultural context
The international boom is fairly recent, beginning in earnest in 2009 when the Ministry of Health first granted local clinics official permission to receive foreign patients.
Industry insiders believe that the phenomenon is due to the fact that Korean plastic surgeons are among the best in the world.
According to Kwon Seung-taik, a plastic surgeon who specializes in orthopedic and hand surgery at Seoul National University Hospital, it's no surprise that Korean doctors are skilled at plastic surgery.
Kwon cites a number of reasons.
First is the high level of domestic surgeries, which, according to Kwon, is due to the fact that Koreans have a special attitude toward beauty.
To Koreans, beauty is something that is attainable through hard work -- just like anything else.
"It's not just about desire,” says Kwon. “I prefer to use the word 'challenge' -- Koreans see plastic surgery, and becoming prettier, as a challenge.”
According to Kwon, Koreans have less respect for inherited beauty.
They see beauty not as something to be envied, but something to be attained.
"It's kind of like an ‘if you’re pretty, I can be pretty too!' attitude," he says.
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A large part of the international appeal of Korean cosmetic surgery may simply be practical: there's a world of differences in the prices.
"An average -- not excellent -- face-lift in the United States will set you back about US$10,000," says Kwon. "But in Korea you can get the same service for US$2,000 or US$3,000."
Some have attempted to link the popularity of plastic surgery in Korea with Hallyu, or the Korean Wave of pop culture, with Asian patients wanting to look like Korean actresses Han Ye-sul or Kim Tae-hee.
“Kim Tae-hee’s features are the ones that are requested the most often by patients from all over the world,” says Kwon.
While critics often argue that Koreans are adopting a more Western ideal of beauty, both Kwon and Joo disagree, saying that the standards are universal.
Kwon recounts something he read a while back.
"Two love letters," he says, "written 5,000 years ago, from China and Greece, respectively, both describe their lover as beautiful, with a pointed nose and large eyes."
"We have Westerners coming in to cut down their nose to a smaller size -- does that mean they want to look Asian?" says Kwon.
Joo also shakes his head at the accusation that Korean plastic surgery attempts to make Asian faces more Western.
"I don't think that's true at all,” he says. "Sometimes a foreign doctor will criticize the Korean tendency to thin out the jawline too much -- they think it looks grotesque."
What both Kwon and Dr. Joo agree on is that everyone generally wants to look younger -- hence, the huge demand for anti-aging treatments.
There are still, however, differences in what patients from different countries want.
"The Chinese are not afraid of a complete overhaul," says a public relations representative from JK.
"The Japanese are more conservative, preferring to keep their most unique features. The Koreans mostly follow trends."
Back to the micro level
Back at the JK Plastic Surgery Clinic, I ask Dr. Joo to assess my face.
That's not how the plastic surgery process works, he tells me. He first wants to know what I'm looking for -- innocence, maturity? The emphasis is on me.
"What would it take to make me look like the actress Shin Min-a?" I ask.
He gives me the rundown, speaking professionally and dispassionately.
A fat graft onto my forehead, a slight narrowing of the tip of my nose and higher cheekbones.
We'd also need to fix my eyes -- it's no longer about a simple cut to the eyelid. There are many kinds of double-eyelid surgery.
I'm impressed. "Is all of this possible?"
He looks amused. "Yes, of course."
JK Plastic Surgery Clinic, 584-2 Sinsa-dong Gangnam-gu, Seoul (서울시 강남구 신사동 584-2); +82 2 777 0337;english.jkplastic.com
Ritz-Carlton Seoul, 602 Yeoksam-dong Gangnam-gu, Seoul (서울시 강남구 역삼동 602); +82 2 3451 8000; www.ritzcarlton.com
Sun Medical Center, 10-7 Mokdong Jung-gu, Daejeon (대전시 중구 목동 10-7); +82 10 3614 0817; eng.sunhospital.com