Women have died in Korea during cosmetic surgery operations. Others have endured botched operations that have left them grotesquely disfigured. Yet others have suffered from painful surgeries and painful injuries that resulted from their operations. Then there is the whole question of whether cosmetic surgery is necessary to begin with especially when that many are having it done look fine and doing it to look like their favorite K-Pop or Korean drama star.

Ju-min Park of Reuters wrote: Formal complaints about botched procedures and dodgy doctors doubling in 2013 from a year earlier.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. [Source: Ju-min Park, Reuters, November 1, 2014]

“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. "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," Cha said at his clinic in Seoul's Gangnam district, a prosperous area filled with such surgeries.

Chung Joo-won wrote in the Korea Herald: “With cosmetic surgery common nationwide, so-called “modified faces” have become a regular sight in bustling areas such as Gangnam, Cheongdam-dong and Sinsa-dong. But despite their vast popularity, cosmetic procedures can go awry just like any other medical procedure. “I had a calf reduction done to become more attractive, but I got the worst out of it,” a woman wrote on Anti-Plastic Surgery Cafe, one of the largest online anti-plastic surgery communities. [Source: Chung Joo-won. Korea Herald, November 29, 2013]

“As more surgeries are performed and complex techniques are used, medical disputes are on the rise. Some doctors said the distorted image of beauty in Korea, often promoted through camera-perfect celebrities, is increasing the risks of plastic surgery. “I have done breast enlargement surgeries, but I still do not understand women’s desire to have both a skinny body and large breasts,” said a plastic surgeon who used to work at a large cosmetic clinic chain in Gangnam. “Some patients say they want to have noses that look exactly the same as certain TV celebrities, but it is almost impossible to make a perfect replica. Frankly, I think a surgery is successful when the final result has roughly 70 percent or higher synchronicity with the desired goal,” he said.

Unqualified Doctors Doing Cosmetic Surgery in Korea

Patricia Marx wrote in The New Yorker: Hyon-Ho Shin, who heads the malpractice branch of the Korean lawyers’ association, “estimates that as many as eighty per cent of doctors doing plastic surgery are not certified in the field; these are known as “ghost doctors.” A 2005 BBC report mentioned radiologists performing double-eyelid surgeries and psychiatrists operating the liposuction machine. Shin believes that nurses and untrained assistants are wielding the scalpel, too. Sometimes a hotshot doctor with a recognizable name will be there to greet the patient, but after the anesthetic kicks in it’s hello, Doogie Howser! [Source: Patricia Marx, The New Yorker, March 23, 2015]

Stephen Evans of the BBC wrote: Part of the problem is that plastic surgery is so lucrative that unqualified doctors have been drawn in - or rather doctors qualified in other areas of quite different medicine. It's alleged that procedures have been done by what are called "ghost doctors". In one court case, it's claimed that the advertised doctor slipped out of the operating room once the patient was under the anaesthetic and the job was then botched by the replacement surgeon. On top of that, it's emerged that some before-and-after photos have had a bit of surgery themselves - surgery of the Photoshop variety. [Source: Stephen Evans, BBC News, December 15, 2014]

“The upshot is that the Korean Association of Plastic Surgeons has called for tighter rules for doctors and for advertisers. They fear that the bad publicity is damaging the reputation of an industry which is largely well-run. But they're fighting against the tide. Plastic surgery is very profitable, even with prices that undercut the U.S. and Europe. One of the big businesses in Gangnam, here in Seoul, prices "eye-shape correction" at US$1,500 for a 30-minute, simple procedure. It rises to US$11,000 for a "full-incision face lift".

In response to a survey of 1,000 patients, run by the Korea Consumer Agency (KCA): 70 percent of those questioned said they had a surgical procedure to improve their looks, and 14.5 percent said they believed it boosted their prospects for employment or promotion The most popular procedure was the "double-eyelid surgery" - 67.8 percent of respondents said they undergone the procedure; 32.3 percent of those asked responded that the results of their procedures were "unsatisfactory". [Source: Wall Street Journal, Korea Times]

Painful Cosmetic Surgeries in South Korea

Many cosmetic surgery clinics in Seoul run advertisements that describe their procedures as “a normal and painless process just like face painting.” These places offer V-line surgery, nose surgery to make a nose bridge higher, forehead surgery to make a forehead more round, liposuction, and breast surgery that are often anything but painless. . Facial contouring surgery, which makes a woman’s face more V-line-shaped, smaller, and narrower involves scraping bone away from the skull and even breaking and moving bones. The recovery period is quite long and painful. For a long time the jaw is wired shut and a patient is not allowed to eat anything solid. Some of patients lose feeling in the lower half of the face. [Source: Christoph Neidhart, Tages-Anzeiger, October 27, 2015, Tages-Anzeiger, also abbreviated Tagi or TA, is a Swiss German-language national daily newspaper published in Zurich, Switzerland]

“I had a calf reduction done to become more attractive, but I got the worst out of it,” a woman wrote on Anti-Plastic Surgery Cafe, one of the largest online anti-plastic surgery communities. The patient had her calf muscles involuted for slimmer legs, but ended up suffering acute pain. “I freaked out when the people at the clinic said my muscle tissues had been partially ripped out,” she claimed. [Source: Chung Joo-won. Korea Herald, November 29, 2013]

Stephen Evans of the BBC wrote: “One acquaintance of mine complains that her chin becomes painful when it rains. And then it emerges that she went into the surgery for a nose job but got persuaded - or persuaded herself - that it was her chin that really needed its contours changing. The result: a more shapely chin that is also a more painful chin. Despite that, she is now intent on breast enlargement.” [Source: Stephen Evans, BBC News, December 15, 2014]

Botched Cosmetic Surgery and Deaths in South Korea

There are many reports of botched operations and women who have been disfigured. Patricia Marx wrote in The New Yorker: “Hyon-Ho Shin, who heads the malpractice branch of the Korean lawyers’ association, told me: “These days, there are so many accidents, and nearly every hospital has had a serious incident, so it doesn’t matter so much. People who are having plastic surgery accept that it’s a risk they take.” “Just before I arrived in Korea, a college student who had gone in for eyelid surgery died. Before the anesthetic was administered, the doctor offered to give her a bonus jaw operation free of charge if she allowed the hospital to use her before-and-after photographs. It was later reported that the doctor was actually a dentist. [Source: Patricia Marx, The New Yorker, March 23, 2015]

In 2016, a 35-year-old Thai woman died during a liposuction and nose job operation, while a 24-year-old South Korean female student lost her life during a jaw bone-cutting surgery at a different clinic. In December 2014, a 21-year-old university student died after a 4-hour facial bone contouring surgical procedure. The woman underwent the plastic surgery procedure in a clinic in Seocho, southern Seoul. She failed to regain consciousness in the recovery room following the operation, and died during treatment. In March 2014, a 35-year-old woman during a nose procedure. In September 2014, a 54 year-old woman died after showing difficulty in breathing during the liposuction surgery in her abdomen. In December 2013, a high school student ended up in a coma after double eyelid and nose surgeries. An investigation found the hospital that performed the procedures had hired ghost doctors. [Source: Reuters, Park Chan-kyong, South China Morning Post, January 31, 2020; Korea Bizwire, December 22, 2014]

On botched double jaw surgery, Chung Joo-won wrote in the Korea Herald: Experts warn against the danger of risky surgeries, some of which could damage perfectly normal facial bone structures. “My upper teeth are shaky and aching, and it left 11 teeth cut off from their nerves,” wrote a woman on an anti-plastic surgery site. She’s now unable to chew, and the left and right side of her face are asymmetrical. “I want to kill myself,” she said. “Double-jaw surgery is difficult, and carries higher risks. It is recommended for people who have many functional problems of the face,” said a former cosmetic clinic consultant who now runs an anti-plastic surgery community. [Source: Chung Joo-won. Korea Herald, November 29, 2013]

Stephen Evans of the BBC wrote: There is now “a slew of court cases where patients — or victims as they might be known — are suing doctors who re-arranged their faces, but not in a good way. One victim said when the bandages came off: "This is not a human face. It is more revolting than monsters or aliens."

Ju-min Park of Reuters wrote: In a notorious case in December 2013, a high school student ended up in a coma after surgeries to fix her nose and get a "double-eyelid", a procedure that makes the eyes look bigger. Cha's group looked into the incident and found the hospital that performed the surgery hired such ghost doctors, and referred the case to prosecutors. It is still under investigation by prosecutors and nobody has been indicted, an official at the association said.

“A Miss Korea contestant in the 1980s underwent breast augmentation in 2008 in the hope that it would boost her chances of finding a husband. Due to a series of post-surgical infections, she said, her right breast ended up half the size of the left. "I regret it too much so I tried to kill myself twice. My mother got me to a hospital. I don't believe in people anymore," she said. A record from the Seoul central district court shows that the doctor has a pending criminal case on charges of violating medical law. [Source: Ju-min Park, Reuters, November 1, 2014]

Rich Hong Kong Woman Dies after Liposuction Surgery in South Korea

In January 2020, a 34-year-old Hong Kong woman died after falling into a coma during a liposuction procedure at a plastic surgery clinic in Seoul. “The woman fell into a coma during a beauty operation... She was immediately transferred to a different hospital, where she was pronounced dead,” an officer at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency said. [Source: Park Chan-kyong, South China Morning Post, January 31, 2020]

The victim belonged of one of Asia’s richest families, which decided to sue the clinic where the operation occurred for misconduct. The Korea Joongang Daily reported: “Bonnie Evita Law, the 34-year-old granddaughter of textile tycoon Law Ting-pong, died after falling into a coma following a liposuction procedure and breast augmentation at a plastic surgery clinic in Gangnam District, southern Seoul. The South China Morning Post (SCMP) said the younger Law’s widower, Danny Chi, filed a lawsuit in a Hong Kong court against two doctors and a nurse at the Ollim Plastic Surgery clinic, for what he claimed was “gross negligence, green and incompetence” on the hospital’s part. [Source: Korea Joongang Daily, March 5, 2020
“Law Ting-pong is the founder of the Bossini clothing chain, a massive apparel retailer and franchiser based in Hong Kong that operates over 900 locations worldwide. The Law family is believed to have a net worth of around US$7.8 billion, according to Forbes. Bonnie Law visited the clinic in question at the introduction of a broker specializing in connecting foreign clients to Korean surgery clinics, and underwent liposuction and breast augmentation on Jan. 21 to celebrate her 35th birthday.

“The surgery was headed by a doctor that the SCMP identified as Kim Sung-il along with another surgeon and a nurse, but with no anesthesiologists present. After the patient complained of intense pain, Kim allegedly had the other surgeon inject her with a mixture of sedatives twice, but her state quickly deteriorated as she began bleeding from her mouth and nose, according to a writ the SCMP cited.

“Chi further told the SCMP he was seeking damages against the hospital that include the loss of a third of his father-in-law’s estate owing to his wife’s death. The family said the clinic had performed no preliminary testing on Law to verify whether she had allergies to the anesthetics used in the surgery, and that the clinic had forged her signature on a consent form that said the hospital takes no responsibility for the consequences from the surgery.”

Monster Face at the Hands of Unqualified Doctors

Ju-min Park of Reuters wrote: 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. [Source: Ju-min Park, Reuters, November 1, 2014]

“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 (US$28,000) 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.

Reasons for South Korea’s Cosmetic Surgery Problem

Ju-min Park of Reuters wrote: “Critics blame lax regulation, excessive advertising and society's obsession with appearance for fuelling an industry run amok. In South Korea 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."Advertising too much has made people think surgeries are a commodity. People now think plastic surgeries are like buying stuff somewhere," said Cha, who has performed plastic surgeries for more than two decades. "But plastic surgery is a surgery too, which can risk your life," he said. [Source: Ju-min Park, Reuters, November 1, 2014]

Stephen Evans of the BBC wrote: The former beauty who “ended up with one breast much bigger than the other...blames doctors for the medical failure but also for never saying to her: "Look, you don't need this." "Plastic surgery is like an addiction," she said. "If you do the eyes, you want the nose. "And doctors don't say, 'You're beautiful enough as you are.'" [Source: Stephen Evans, BBC News, December 15, 2014]

“Does double eyelid surgery make a patient to be happier? “Not really,” Seo Eun-kook, a psychologist at Yonsei University said. “At the moment of surgery it can make one happier but in the long term surgeries do not make him or her happier.” [Source: Christoph Neidhart, Tages-Anzeiger, October 27, 2015, Tages-Anzeiger, also abbreviated Tagi or TA, is a Swiss German-language national daily newspaper published in Zurich, Switzerland]

Patricia Marx wrote in The New Yorker: A surgeon, Dr. Ha, told me, “The larger hospitals have become factories. One hospital even sets timers in the operating room so that, for instance, each doctor has to finish an eyelid surgery in under thirty minutes, or a nose job in under an hour and a half. If they go over, there are financial consequences and verbal reprimands.” These lapses have become an issue of national concern.” In 2014, a Korean lawmaker complained to parliament that seventy-seven per cent of plastic-surgery clinics were not equipped with mandatory defibrillators or ventilators. [Source: Patricia Marx, The New Yorker, March 23, 2015]

Taking Action Against Botched Cosmetic Surgery

Chung Joo-won wrote in the Korea Herald: “Plastic surgery, when poorly performed, can place a crushing financial burden on patients who are already struggling with side effects. Worse, they often find themselves fighting against surgeons in complex medical disputes. “The court tries to examine whether the surgeons did their best in explaining the potential adverse effects of the surgeries,” said Choi Chung-hee, a lawyer at Seseung, a law firm specialized in medical disputes. In a positive development for sufferers of serious side effects, courts nowadays tend to give more weight to the mental pain of patients. [Source: Chung Joo-won. Korea Herald, November 29, 2013]

“But even if a patient wins his case against a doctor, compensation tends to be very small, according to case reports from the Korea Consumer Agency and court rulings. In a dispute settlement case reported by the KCA in July, a hospital that did not completely remove the artificial prosthesis from a patient’s nose as requested was found only 50 percent responsible.”

Chinese women have spent their holidays protesting botched cosmetic surgery in South Korea Oiwan Lam wrote in Global Voices: “The failed procedures resulted in jaw misalignment, asymmetrical eye size and eyelids, crooked noses and stiff facial muscles, among other consequences. The women said they had been lured by medical agents to undertake the surgery without knowing the accreditation of the facility and qualification of the surgeons. [Source: Oiwan Lam, Global Voices, October 8, 2015]

“According to Chinese media outlets, the protesters claimed that the hospital locked them in a dark room at one point and their passports were seized. Eventually they were arrested by police. In China, it would be illegal for the consumers to organize protests demanding awareness and compensation as the women did, but in South Korea they were able to do so legally and some of the women had traveled several times to Seoul to protest in front of the hospitals.

Avoiding Botched Jobs in South Korea

When asked how to avoid cosmetic surgery, Dr. Kim Byung Gun is the Chief Plastic Surgeon of BK Plastic Surgery Hospital said: Every surgical procedure, including plastic surgery, carries certain risks. Each patient has to take into account that no treatment is completely without risk, no matter how skillfully the surgery is performed. It is extremely important that the patient fully understands all possible risks and side-effects before undergoing surgery. [Source: Karen Lee,, October 28, 2016]

“To reduce risk of surgical complications, it is very important that the patient seek the advice of a specialist in plastic surgery and be well informed before undergoing your operation. Check to see if the surgeon is board-certified. Any licensed doctor can call themselves plastic surgeons. To be certain that your surgeon is qualified, choose one who is certified by the Board of Plastic Surgery.

“As it is not illegal to operate without a specialist's license, there are doctors, who are not specialists, performing cosmetic surgeries. Of course we do provide our services to help correct botched plastic surgery procedures, but we hope that more patients will take precautions to ensure they choose a board-certified surgeon who can perform the procedure right the first time around. This is always the safest and healthiest option for everyone.”

Joo Kwon told AFP: "I think South Korea has a very rigorous and narrow definition of beauty because we're an ethnically homogenous society and everyone looks pretty much the same. It is also related to low self-esteem," he said. "I think the situation will somewhat moderate in future as society becomes more diverse. But it will take quite a bit of time until we get there." [Source: AFP Relax News, April 20, 2012]

Plastic-Surgery Addicts and Monsters in South Korea

Patricia Marx wrote in The New Yorker: “In recent years, a new Korean word, sung-gui, began to surface online. It means “plastic-surgery monster.” A college student I spoke to defined the term for me as a person who has had so much cosmetic alteration that he or she “looks unnatural and arouses repulsion.” Not long ago, the Korea Consumer Agency reported that a third of all plastic-surgery patients were dissatisfied with the results, and seventeen per cent claimed to have suffered at least one negative side effect. The agency keeps no official records of accidents or botched surgeries, but every few months there is a story in the newspaper about someone not waking up from the anesthetic after a procedure. [Source: Patricia Marx, The New Yorker, March 23, 2015]

▪“There are a number of plastic-surgery reality shows in Korea, but one, “Back to My Face,” has taken a different approach. I met with Siwon Paek, the producer of the show’s pilot. In the pilot, contestants who had had at least ten surgeries compete to win a final operation that promises to undo all the previous reconstructions. Paek emphasized that the aim is to help plastic-surgery addicts come to terms psychologically with their appearance. Those with lower incomes, she said, tend to be the most compulsive about plastic surgery. “They feel they have no other way to prove themselves to people and lift themselves socially and economically,” she said. Although the “Back to My Face” pilot was popular, Paek said that she will produce no more episodes. “I didn’t have the strength to continue,” she told me. The responsibility of changing people’s lives weighed too heavily on her, she said, and finding contestants was hard. “For one month, I stood outside a dance club,” she told me. “I solicited two hundred people. Most didn’t want to go back to the way they looked before.” Amazingly, this does not seem to hurt business. [Source: Patricia Marx, The New Yorker, March 23, 2015]

Chung Joo-won wrote in the Korea Herald: “Psychiatrists said some individuals want to have surgery believing that their looks are the cause of their depression. “Many people unknowingly seek cosmetic surgery out of an adjustment disorder, rather than depression caused by unsatisfactory looks,” said Yang Jae-jin, a psychiatrist and director of Jin Hospital. Yang was one of the panel members of “Let Me In 3,” a popular makeover TV show. “According to Yang, it is foolish to have plastic surgery as an ultimate solution for unhappiness. “Patients must look into all possible outcomes, both positive and negative, before making a decision,” he said. [Source: Chung Joo-won. Korea Herald, November 29, 2013]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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