Korean Language Blog

Korea Embracing Plastic Surgery Norms Through ‘Medical Tourism’ Posted by on May 21, 2015 in Culture, Uncategorized

South Korea has been pushing efforts both privately and through government agencies to increase tourism to the ROK in the non-traditional form: medical tourism.  In 2014, about 56,000 Chinese alone visited South Korea for plastic surgery, according to China’s Ministry of Health, up from 4,700 in 2009. The social norm in Korea (as well-documented as ever in this Washington Post article), especially for women, is not only acceptable and embraced, but essential and necessary, has taken on new form with the nation’s heavy-handed promotion of medical tourism, mostly for plastic surgery.   From adding eyelids to bigger breasts (or smaller ones for men) to shaving off the jaw bone for a smaller face, Korean norms are quickly becoming a financial market, one clearly embraced and promoted by the private and public sector.

A contest sponsored by the Korean Tourism Organization (한국관광공사) is promoting a competition this month for Malaysian travelers entering Korea between June and November entitled: “Imagine Your Korea: Wondrous K-Beauty”.  The contests asks guests, “In not more than 100 words, state your reason on why you would like to experience K-Beauty in Korea!  Choose one out of the two clinics as stated below in which you would like to experience K-Beauty at…”  The grand prize is a medical voucher awarded to 20 contestants, which is probably aimed at repeat visits or word-of-mouth advertising.  Additionally, the tourism organization is holding an all-day seminar in Kuala Lumpur later this month to teach Malaysians all about “K-Beauty”.

The expansion is capitalizing on the “soft power” of Korean dramas, K-Pop, and Korean image abroad as being distinctly beautiful (as seen on TV).  The industry has reached $5 trillion overall, up to $453 million annually, and nearly one in five Korean women under 50 have had a procedure.  When the Miss Korea 2013 competition created international and domestic shaming due to how similar many of the contestants–most of whom were assumed to have had plastic surgery–resembled each other, it was more surprising that the debate about Korean plastic surgery norms came up in a superficial beauty competition.  Or perhaps it was because Miss Korea looked stereo-typically more Western Caucasian than Korean.

The leading Korean surgeries are double eyelid surgery and a rhinoplasty for a “high ko”, or perceived Western-style nose.  Nearly all Korean job employers require a photo of the applicant, a practice common in Europe and other countries and regions as well.  But in South Korea, that could be make or break for the job, and living in a nation that has the highest number of plastic surgeons per capita leaves the feeling of having little excuse for a flat-nosed, no-eyelid lady in society.

But the phenomena is not as common as one might imagine, with most advertisements being in wealthy regions and not catered to the average income, though prices are relatively cheap compared to other plastic surgery meccas like Southern California.  One doctor claims that 40 percent of his clients are non-Korean citizens.  South Korea is fully embracing the wave of medical tourists, projecting to nearly quadruple revenues, and to have almost 1 million medical tourist by 2020.  (It wouldn’t be shocking for Korea to promote it heavily during the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyongChang [평창 동계 올림픽].)  And if you can’t come to Korea, the doctors will be happy to set-up shop from the U.S. to Mongolia, as the state is promoting doctors to set-up clinics abroad.

One of the reasons Korea keeps costs low, and why medical tourists come, is because its nationalized health care system has not succumbed to foreign pharmaceutical companies, and has therefore kept drug and recovery costs down, relying heavily on generic drugs, as well as being considered a leading in biomedical drug research.  The growth and push for Korean medical tourism is not new, nor is it primarily based on plastic surgery.  Korea has previously promoted significantly cheaper alternatives dental surgery, knee and hip replacement surgery, prosthetic limbs, and ultrasound equipment exports, but lags behind other OECD nations overall.

For a couple of interesting looks, see the videos below:

From ABC News:


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About the Author: Tony Kitchen

Tony is a seasoned traveler who lived in Busan, South Korea from 2008-2012. While living in South Korea, he traveled extensively around Asia. After leaving, he spent 100 days traveling from Russia to Germany and many places in between. Currently, he lives and works in Budapest, Hungary, focusing on South Korean and East Asian business. Tony has an M.A. in International Relations with a specific focus on South Korean-U.S. relations and North Korea.


  1. Anca Maria:

    In the last twenty years, the healthcare system in Korea managed to evolve really fast, giving them an advantage in the medical tourism industry. The highly technological yet distinguished medical services combined with biotechnology and low prices provide amazing results!http://www.placidarabic.com/destinations/south-korea/