In South Korea, one in three young women has plastic surgery

In South Korea, one in three young women has plastic surgery

South Korea has the highest rated of plastic surgery per capita in the world. In a 2020 survey 31% of women in their thirties said they’d had plastic surgery.


South Koreans who’ve had surgery. (Percentage of 1500 random participants interviewed by telephone)

This is similar to a survey in 2015 that determined that about one third of women between 20-30 have had surgery.

K-Beauty is power

Beauty is very important in South Korea, in fact ‘K-Beauty, along with ‘K-Pop’ is one of it’s biggest cultural exports. K-beauty refers to a certain type of scaled-back natural beauty focusing on soft, dewy skin rather than over-embellishing makeup. In 2019 over 90,000 foreigners, including many Americans and Chinese, travelled to South Korea for plastic surgery, searching for that celebrated ‘K-Beauty’ look. According to a global survey, K-beauty is one of the most popular emerging trends of South Korea. Korean beauty products are most popular in the UAE and Indonesia but are widely popular in many parts of South East Asia and the Middle East.

It’s all in the eyes

The most popular operations are double eyelid surgery, eye-widening, face-scultping and jaw-reduction. With eye-widening patients are given a ‘double-eyelid,’ removing a layer of fat around the eyes and making the eyes look larger. Chin reduction is also popular as South Koreans’ idea of beauty has narrower jaw lines than westerners. The ultimate aim is to have a perfectly ovular face with large eyes, a bit like in Manga (or Manhwa in Korea). This differs from surgery in America where liposuction and breast enhancements are more popular.

15 Best Manhwa With Strong Female Leads | CBR
Popular Manhwa ‘Survive As The Hero’s Wife.’ Note the large eyes, V-line face shape and smooth white skin.

Gangnam style

So does South Korea deserve the title ‘Plastic Surgery Nation’, as it has been named by many western media outlets? In fact it’s not so much South Korea that is obsessed with plastic surgery, but Seoul. More than half of South Korea’s private clinics are based in the capital and 75% of those are in the fashionable Gangnam district. Psy’s “Gangnam Style” mocks this trendy area full of western boutique shops, modern apartment blocks and plastic surgery clinics.

Most of South Korea’s plastic surgery clinics are in Gangnam

Why so much surgery?

It’s impossible to know for sure why South Korea has such a high rate of plastic surgery. But some speculate that it’s to do with the very competitive jobs market. Since the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, youth unemployment has never really recovered in South Korea.

Among the youth in this country, applying a hundred times for a job is not exceptional.

Kyungsoo Choi, Getting to Grips with South Korea’s Youth Unemployment Malaise – Kyungsoo Choi is Senior Fellow, Korea Development Institute

In the 2000s the government provided little social welfare and young graduates were pitted against each other for every job. In 2017 youth unemployment rate hit a record of 11.7%.

job applicants are judged on their appearance and most employers ask for a photo of the applicant and even their height and weight. Surgery to make yourself more attractive is seen as an advantage in the employment market.

93% of companies ask for a photo in their job applications.

67% deduct points to anyone that didn’t submit a photo.
Job applicants are expected to provide a headshot with their application. This video is an advert for a company (one of many) offering photo shoot and makeup packages

K pop stars and TV idols also influence Koreans into getting plastic surgery. Many K-Pop groups are open about getting plastic surgery. Popular K-Pop group SixBomb even made two songs about everyone in the group getting plastic surgery; ‘Getting Pretty Before‘ and ‘Getting Prettier After‘. Casemaker Entertainment record company spent an estimated $93,000 on their plastic surgery. According to reports they had “Every kind of surgery that could be done on a face.”

It’s also a question of mentality. In South Korea beauty is seen as something that you can attain through hard work, a commodity that you can buy just like anything else.

Increase in plastic surgery articles in South Korean magazines – The Dubious Enhancement: Making South Korea a Plastic Surgery Nation 7 The medicalisation of beauty has accelerated since the 1990s.


Share of respondents who have had plastic surgery in South Korea in 2020, by age and gender – Statista

The Dubious Enhancement: Making South Korea a Plastic Surgery Nation – So Yeon Leem
East Asian Science, Technology and Society: an International Journal

Flight attendants in South Korea reveal why plastic surgery is becoming the norm to get a job – Rachel Premack Updated Aug 12, 2019, Insider

Getting to Grips with South Korea’s Youth Unemployment Malaise – By Kyungsoo Choi

Popularity of South Korean beauty products (K-beauty) worldwide in 2021 – Statista

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