SINGAPORE - Beautiful Korea Wave stars dominate billboards in Seoul's Gangnam district, but countless posters of before-and-after transformations tout the district's ubiquitous cosmetic surgery clinics.
In fact, plastic surgery has become so pervasive in South Korea that parents reportedly promise it to children who do well in their exams, while countless tourists arrive on cosmetic surgery packages.
Inevitably though, there are risks, from botched operations to plastic surgery addictions.
Although facts are hard to come by - clinics contacted by The Sunday Times declined to discuss the issue - K-pop bulletin boards endlessly discuss K-pop stars' latest nips and tucks.
The various operations of girl group 2NE1's Park Bom, whose transformation from plain Jane to nymph is particularly notorious, are widely discussed. An example is her apparent chin job last year, which some netizens reckoned had been botched.
Another K-pop idol, Miryo, part of the girl group Brown Eyed Girls, had so many procedures that even associates did not recognise her.
Internet cafe Seouleg notes that there are "many stories of plastic surgery gone right, but not many that went wrong".
But it tells of one victim, a "Ms Kwon", in her late 40s. She had a facelift but, instead of hiding the incision in her hairline, the surgeon cut into her forehead, leaving a scar. She is suing.
Another, Person "A", had osteotomy ("bone cutting") on his face, but developed a long furrow in his jawline and double chin. His doctor blamed it on "strange bone structure". He, too, is taking legal action.
The case of a fashion industry worker in his mid-20s, who wished to be identified only as "Sohn", shows cosmetic surgery can be addictive.
Sohn got a nose bridge implant at 19, but it was far too large. After contentious discussions with the surgeon, he had it replaced. But by then, he had become so aware of physical imperfections that he had a third procedure before he was satisfied.
Such addictions can become extreme, as in the 2008 case of Hang Mi Kou.
After running out of money for implants, she injected her own face with cooking oil - to horror-movie effect.
So what is the issue?
For starters, the odd procedures pioneered in South Korea that go far beyond the usual facelifts or eye and nose jobs.
One slices away chunks of calf to make legs slimmer, but with muscle loss. Another hacks away sections of jaw or chinbone for a desirable "egg-shaped" face. So popular is this that one Gangnam clinic displayed thousands of jaw bones it had removed in a giant glass case in its lobby.
Another problem is a lack of expertise.
In a column entitled "Korea Is Heaven For Illegal Plastic Surgery" in the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, Dr Jang Chung Hyun of the well-regarded Samsung Gangbuk hospital noted that many general practitioners hope to cash in and open cosmetic clinics, even though they lack specialised training.
From 2003 to 2008, Dr Jang said he had treated 120 patients suffering from plastic surgery side effects. Among them, 54 suffered chronic pain, 43 were disfigured and 23 had numbness.
Thus, some Koreans are arguing against the plastic surgery mania.
Last year, photographer Ji Yeo displayed a collection of photos of women in recovery from plastic surgery - their faces and bodies bruised, swollen and swathed in bandages.
Another outspoken opponent is Ms Park Jung Ah, the chief South Korean representative of the Miss World beauty pageant. "I want to find a real Korean face, not a Western-style, 'factory-made' face," she said.
She is also concerned about health. "Plastic surgeons I talk to don't realise how dangerous their operations are. They are very casual about it," she said. "It is like the Sewol ferry incident: The safety sense is very bad in Korea."
Still, the craze is not going away any time soon.
As Dr Jang wrote: "Korea is more famous for plastic surgery than for kimchi."
This article was published on May 11 in The Straits Times.
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