Thinking About Getting Cosmetic Surgery in Korea? Make Sure You Read This First

My class ‘Race and Ethnicity in the Modern World’ focuses on the relationship between race, notions of beauty, the global trade in skin lighteners, and the growing use of plastic surgery. Along those lines, this post gives a helpful overview of debates over plastic surgery in Korea. Enjoy!

The Grand Narrative

Korea Cosmetic Surgery(Sources: left, dongA; right, The Kyunghyang Shinmun)

The more operations, the more possibilities for complications, mistakes, and patient deaths. So, with the highest per capita number of cosmetic surgery operations in the world, you’re always going to hear a lot of harrowing, even terrifying experiences of going under the knife in Korea. Korean cosmetic surgeons, who are no more unethical or incompetent than those from any other country, shouldn’t be singled out for horror stories that can and do happen everywhere.

But it’s more than just numbers. With so many clinics lacking even basic first-aid equipment; doctors clamoring to break into the lucrative cosmetic surgery market whatever their training and specialty; patients receiving little to no warnings of side-effects; little regulation by the Ministry of Health and Welfare; insufficient support staff because they’re too expensive; and patients doped-up to disguise the fact that the hot-shot surgeons they’ve hired have been replaced with…

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K-Pop Beauty Factory

Korean wave, hallyu in Singapore

Korean wave, hallyu in Singapore (Photo credit: KOREA.NET – Official page of the Republic of Korea)

by Adelle Tamblyn

Coming in at US$180 million in 2011, Kpop (Korean pop) has become South Korea’s largest export. After watching a handful of Kpop music videos, it’s not hard to see why it’s become known as Hallyu, or the “Korean Wave“: every music video I watched had addictive beats and perfectly synchronised choreography, and it’s hard not to be mesmerised by a group of twenty year-olds with six-packs and make-up a la B2ST, or the perfect faces of SNSD, all with button noses, delicate, pointed chins, and big, sparkly eyes. Kpop’s main target market are teenagers: teenagers from France to Fiji, Australia to Austria have succumbed to the Korean Wave. Due to the clever utilisation of the internet to market Kpop, entertainment companies SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP (known as the “big three”) have helped create an entirely new generation of teens who sing lyrics they don’t understand. But Kpop has created a new trend: cosmetic surgery.

This year’s contestants for the Miss Korea contest look starkly different to the contestants just 30 years prior. 30 years ago Miss Koreans had a very different face: slumberous, slanted eyes, a round face and a wide nose. In exchange for these features, the Miss Korean contestants today have large, double-lidded eyes, a pointed chin and tiny, pointed noses. The same look can been seen, replicated again and again in the Kpop industry. Children as young as nine or ten get recruited by entertainment companies, in which they are signed into 10-15 year contracts: it is no big secret that along with this, new recruits are contractually obliged to have plastic surgery to “improve” their image and become more sellable. In other words, these children are moulded and manufactured, ready-made and sold globally for company profit. In an interview with Kpop group D-Unit, Charlet of Vice asks what the ideal Korean beauty is: one girl answers that ideally, Korean beauty would be that of Westerners, because of its “distinctiveness”. “Big round eyes, straight nose and round face”, the D-Unit member says. Has this become the template for beauty in South Korea? The “Western” face?

The advancement of cosmetic surgery technology and techniques means that this Western look is readily accessible, and attainable. In a nation increasingly becoming obsessed with notions of Western beauty, boosted by the Kpop industry, one in five South Koreans have turned to plastic surgery, as opposed to one in twenty people in America. Parents in South Korea are helping to encourage the importance of beauty in their society: as a middle school or high school graduation present, instead of luxury goods, it is now quite common for parents to foot the bill for their children’s plastic surgery (typically, double eyelid surgery). Supposedly, this is meant to increase their child’s chances of getting into a prestigious high school or university. It is not only teens who are affected by the cosmetic surgery: some employers make recruiting selections based on physical attractiveness. If Western phenotypes are the ideal Korean beauty, then those who have undergone cosmetic surgery would be the people getting the jobs: such hiring techniques resembles the employment patterns of companies, who give preferential treatment of White people over other types of people.

Kpop is much more than South Korea’s largest export: besides influencing plastic surgery tourism, endorsement deals with a variety of Korean products have helped stimulate the country’s economy, and the deification of Kpop stars has also boosted agriculture. Worshipping teens will make donations of rice at music concerts in order to feed their idols. With so much socio-economic profit, it doesn’t look like the Kpop and plastic surgery will come to an end soon.

Kpop has become the “face” of South Korea, whilst their real faces are hidden behind more than a nip-and-tuck. If South Koreans keep turning to plastic surgery as the answer to their problems, constantly Westernising themselves, they are only telling themselves that White phenotypes are the only type of beauty.

Furthermore, they are ethnically cleansing themselves psychologically and physically through plastic surgery.


Lee, H. (2013, October 10). Plastic surgery lifts South Korean tourism. Retrieved from

Stone, Z. (2013, May 24). The K-Pop plastic surgery obsession. Retrieved from

Vice (2012, October 23). Seoul Fashion Week – K-Pop to double eyelid surgery [Video file]. Retrieved from

Willett, M. (2013, June 6). Korea Is obsessed with plastic surgery. Retrieved from