Singapore residents scarred after botched plastic surgery in S Korea

A pedestrian walking past an advertisement for a plastic surgery clinic in Seoul. South Korea has become a hot plastic surgery destination for Singapore residents. But many are reporting botched operations.
PHOTO: Singapore residents scarred after botched plastic surgery in S Korea

SINGAPORE - When Denise paid $10,000 to a clinic in South Korea last September, she was hoping to say goodbye to drooping eyebags and come back to Singapore with more well-defined double eyelids.

"They all said Korea is very good for plastic surgery," she told The Sunday Times. "I wanted to look younger, to look more beautiful."

What she got instead were creases in her eyelids which made her eyes look asymmetrical. She received another surprise - the Korean doctor removed fat from her abdomen and transferred it to her forehead, without her permission.

She only found out after she felt pain around her abdomen when she woke up after surgery. Fat grafting is usually done to add fullness to sunken areas and give a more youthful appearance. But not in Denise's case.

"Now I have a flat portion between my forehead and my eyebrows. It looks so unnatural.

"All my friends say I look like a changed person."

The Chinese national, who did not want her real name used, is in her 40s, and working in Singapore in a line where "looks are important".

She is not the only one returning from Korea with botched plastic surgery. Plastic surgeons in Singapore say they are seeing more patients in need of corrective surgery after failed procedures in South Korea.

"Five years ago, I saw maybe two patients with bad results and complications from Korea," said Dr Chua Jun Jin of JJ Chua Rejuvenative Cosmetic and Laser Surgery. "Last year, I saw about 100."

Next   Next   Infections, scarring and distorted features

About 80 per cent of his patients are Singaporean, with the rest mainly from Malaysia and Indonesia.

Problems include infections, permanent scarring and distorted facial features.

Dr Martin Huang of Cosmetic Surgery Clinic said he sees one such patient a month on average, up from one to two a year before.

South Korea has become one of the hottest plastic surgery destinations for Singaporeans and others living here - because it can be a lot cheaper. Double eyelid surgery here, for instance, usually costs $6,000. In Korea, it can be done for $3,000.

But those who fly over should keep some things in mind - such as the hard-sell tactics.

"Korean doctors tend to suggest a lot of treatments," said Dr Chua. "So you end up doing things that you don't want, or doing more than you need."

Others, added Dr Huang, accompany a friend overseas for surgery, only to be "sucked into it themselves on the spot". He has also heard of procedures going wrong because of the language barrier between patient and doctor.

"Sometimes I ask patients about the consultation they had, and they tell me things like: 'There was no discussion because he couldn't speak English, so I just left it to him'."

In Denise's case, the clinic she went to - which was in the Gangnam district of the South Korean capital Seoul - employed a Chinese interpreter.

"But even then they never asked my permission," she said about the fat grafting. "They did it while I was unconscious."

Next   Next   Can be more costly

Fixing a botched procedure can be more costly than the original operation, said Gleneagles Hospital's Dr Leslie Kuek, who has also noted more women seeking corrective surgery after their return from South Korea.

"Sometimes, it's hard for us to solve the problem if we don't know what the doctor on the other side has done," he said. "And not everything can be fixed. They come to us and we have to tell them the damage is permanent."

Dr Chua has even seen a woman with a growth on her nose - "a collection of pus half the size of a ping pong ball" - after her implant was infected. In such a case, "the only way is to take out the implant", he said. "Most people do a nose job thinking it's straightforward, but they have no idea what they're getting into."

It is important to do proper research and understand the consequences before committing to a procedure, say surgeons here. "Definitely a proper consultation is required as well," said Dr Huang.

A proper consultation takes between 20 minutes and an hour, depending on the complexity of the operation and the patient. Denise's consultation lasted about half an hour.

"I didn't suspect anything - the clinic was very clean and the service was very good," she said.

"If the procedure was successful, what I paid would have been worth it. But it was definitely not, and I'm really very unhappy."

Next   Next   Dark side to the pursuit of perfection

The dark side to the pursuit of perfection

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.

Next   Next   Bone cutting

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.

Next   Next   So what is the issue?

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. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.