Gangnam District, Seoul, Korea.
Home of Psy and plastic surgery.
David Keelaghan is a Monaghan-born journalist working for the Korea Times in Seoul, Korea.
South Korea is a country that has come so far so fast it is now facing somewhat of an identity crisis. From the ashes of the Korean War developed a nation that is now the world’s 13th largest economy according to recent IMF data. One of the most technologically advanced countries on earth; nevertheless it still clings to tradition in many ways.
It is the world leader in internet connectivity, but a place where the censorship inherent during its military dictatorship past still rears its head far too often.
Its Confucian roots mean respect for one’s elders is paramount, yet it spends less on social services than any other member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
While being one of the few countries to have a female head of state in Park Guen-hye, it also has the highest gender pay divide in the OECD. Yes, Korea is a nation of great contradictions
Of course, considering where it was in 1953 when the armistice with the North was signed, and where it stands today, these problems, while undoubtedly challenging, are far from insurmountable.
Another industry where South Korea leads the way is plastic surgery – the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery estimates it has the highest rate of cosmetic surgery per capita of any country.
Whether that is a good or bad thing is open to debate, but the economic benefits are certainly there for all to see. The district of Gangnam, made famous (or infamous) by the singer Psy, is the entertainment and nightlife heartland of Seoul.
Besides that, in recent years it has become an international cosmetic surgery destination with 74 percent of Seoul’s clinics situated there, leading it to be dubbed “the plastic surgery capital of Asia.”
That moniker is well earned, something you immediately recognise when you arrive in Gangnam and notice the ubiquitous plastic surgery advertisements. Despite the steady flow of customers arriving daily, the sheer amount of clinics in the district means competition is fierce, leading to methods being used you certainly wouldn’t find anywhere in the Hippocratic Oath.
Last month a Chinese woman was declared brain dead after undergoing cosmetic surgery at a hospital in Gangnam.
Commenting on the case, the Korean Association of Plastic Surgeons (KAPS) said the hospital in question had been run by an advertising agency official who did not even possess a medical license.
The incident, while shocking, was reflective of a much greater problem within the industry in terms of regulation. Quite simply, there isn’t any. This means injury and death from botched cosmetic surgery is becoming more and more prevalent.
Such was the case with the 21-year old female college student, identified only by her surname Jung, who died two hours after facial bone contouring surgery at a clinic in southern Seoul last December; or the death of the 54-year-old woman who passed away after suffering difficulties breathing while undergoing liposuction three months earlier.
And those are just the extreme cases where people have died. The Korea Consumer Agency said it received complaints from 4,816 people in 2013, up 28.5 percent from the previous year, regarding treatment they received. Of that number, 71 percent were about clinics in Seoul, with Gangnam accounting for 80.9 percent of that amount.
The 2014 figures have yet to be released, but with the Seoul Metropolitan Government aggressively pushing its medical tourism industry, of which plastic surgery brought in 21,364 patients in 2013 – the second largest medical segment – the chances of malpractice cases dropping looks slim.
Dr. Jae-jin Ock practices at “THE Plastic Surgery Clinic” in Sinsa-dong in Gangnam. A member of KAPS, he identifies the main reasons why the industry’s reputation has started to suffer.
“There is no regulation or by-law that governs the difference between a plastic surgery specialist and a mere cosmetic doctor. A doctor’s license in Korea can be used in any medical field. The license does not guarantee the level of a doctor; it is simply a legal permit. I think a procedure to determine whether a doctor is ready for more specialized care is needed.”
The issue of specialists and non-specialists is something Professor Chul Park at the Auroplastic Research Center of the Korea University Medical Center considers a major black mark for the industry also.
“A plastic surgery specialist is a surgeon who has had a four-year residency training under qualified plastic surgeons.
Specialists are not only well aware of the specific fields, but also any complications that may occur. Someone that simply practices plastic surgery does not have to have residency training; it could be a dentist or an ophthalmologist or any other doctor. Anyone who has graduated from medical school can attain the license and practice plastic surgery by law.”
The thought of someone performing highly complex and dangerous surgery without proper training would be disconcerting for most people – like finding out the local bus driver was piloting the 747 you were about to board.
Dr. Ock believes the phenomenon of doctors from across the medical sphere entering the cosmetic surgery industry comes down to simple economics.
“With the growing demand for cosmetic surgery, there will be more and more unprepared surgeons. It is the fundamentals of the market. Then, patients from overseas usually have no way to verify the expertise of doctors and this causes a lot of side effects and complications in the long run.
Prof. Park agrees with this point regarding some doctors’ skewed thinking on the matter.
“A large number of foreign patients come to Korea especially from China, Russia and central Asia. This provides a good chance for us to invest in our medical technology. However, some doctors focus too much on business/commercial concerns and forget the main purpose of a medical practice. Some doctors focus more on quantity of patients rather than the quality of the practice and this leads to malpractice.”
While the clinics face much of the criticism for abuses in the system, there is another dark hand at play when it comes to this issue. Medical brokers who act as intermediaries between international patients and clinics in Korea have a stranglehold on the industry according to many doctors.
One such doctor is Prof. Park, who specialises in reconstructive surgery involving ears at Anam Hospital in Seoul.
“Currently, when patients come to Korea for a medical procedure, a broker serves as a medium between patient and doctor. Normally practitioners only get 50% of the actual charge or even less sometimes with the rest going to brokers. These brokers ignite competition among doctors and many practitioners often work too much and get burned out. Of course, this could deteriorate the quality of the medical practice.”
South Korea emerging from economic backwater to global export powerhouse in just a few decades is often referred to as “The Miracle on the Han.”
The reason the country was able to achieve this was far from divine intervention, however, but rather the toil of its people. Now a wealthy country, it has different “First World” problems to overcome. The expansion of lucrative cosmetic surgery businesses outpacing legislation is one such example. For Dr. Jae-jin Ock, a thriving industry is surely positive, albeit holding a large caveat that changes are necessary to safeguard its future.
“Development of the system is necessary to maintain the market. What is required is a proper distinction between the specialized doctors and general doctors. We also need a variety of new programs for the training and assessment for new surgeons we will need in the years ahead.”
David also blogs here
…spread the word and let @itunes know that it’s not ok to market plastic surgery games to kids…
Ipkkori or ‘liptail surgery’ is an increasingly common procedure in South Korea (where the duckface’ look is apparently very desirable).
Formerly used to combat the downward turn of the lip edges which increases with age, the surgery involves stitches at the corner of the mouth that can result in a curious ‘Joker-like’ appearance – especially popular in the service industry where workers are expected to smile all day long.
(Pete Burns, Cher and Jennifer ‘the Lamprey’ Rush)
A one-stop archive of dysmorphia, self-delusion and wasted cash.
Just time for a jumbo helping of WTF as the working day draws to a close.
Check out (i.e. recoil in horror at) Session Magazine’s gallery of celebrities (who looked weird enough to begin with) before and after numerous ill-advised plastic surgeries.