Trouble brewing in South Korea's plastic surgery paradise

Trouble brewing in South Korea's plastic surgery paradise
Kim Bok-soon, 49, took loans and spent S$35,000 for 15 surgeries on her face over the course of a day. Five years later, she is unable to close her eyes or stop her nose from running.

SEOUL - Kim Bok-soon disliked her nose and fantasised about getting it fixed after learning of the Korean superstition that an upturned nose makes it harder to hold on to riches.

While waiting in a hair salon, she saw a magazine advertisement for a plastic surgery clinic and decided to go for it, despite her family's objections.

In South Korea, where physical perfection is seen as a way to improve the quality of life, including job and marriage prospects, plastic surgery procedures can seem as commonplace as haircuts.

Kim's doctor said he could turn her into a celebrity lookalike, and Kim decided to take the plunge, taking loans and spending 30 million won (S$35,000) for 15 surgeries on her face over the course of a day.

When the bandages came off and she looked in the mirror, she knew something had gone horribly wrong. Only later did Kim find out her doctor was not a plastic surgery specialist.

Five years later, Kim struggles with an array of medical problems, and is unable to close her eyes or stop her nose from running. The 49-year-old divorcee said she was unemployed and suffers from depression.

"It is so horrible that people can't look at my face," Kim, crying, said in her tiny one-room Seoul flat filled with photographs from before and after the surgeries. "This is not a human face. It is more revolting than monsters or aliens."

A record from the Seoul central district court shows that Kim's doctor faces a pending criminal case on charges of violating medical law. The case began in 2009 after several patients including Kim reported him to the authorities. The doctor's lawyer turned down Reuters' request for an interview.

The boom in South Korea's US$5 billion (S$6.4 billion) plastic surgery industry - that's a quarter of the global market according to the country's antitrust watchdog - is facing a backlash, with formal complaints about botched procedures and dodgy doctors doubling in 2013 from a year earlier.

Some plastic surgeons say safety fears could stifle the country's nascent but fast-growing market for medical tourism, especially from China.

Complaints range from unqualified doctors to overly aggressive marketing to "ghost doctors", who stand in for more qualified doctors and perform surgeries on unwitting, anaesthetized patients.

Cha Sang-myun, chairman of the Korean Association of Plastic Surgeons, which represents 1,500 plastic surgeons, is worried about their reputation. Cha and some lawmakers are among those calling for tighter supervision and stricter advertising rules.

"We've got to clean ourselves up," Cha said at his clinic in Seoul's high-end Gangnam district, which is filled with plastic surgery clinics. "Now, patients from China are coming in the name of plastic surgery tourism but if things go on like this, I don't think they will come in the next few years," he said.

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