Dateline looks at the changing face of South Korean youngsters, who are having plastic surgery to look like their K-Pop music idols.
Tuesday, March 19, 2013 - 21:30

South Korea has the highest rate of cosmetic procedures per capita in the world; and it's literally changing the face of the country's young people.

Jeannette Francis examines how the K-Pop music scene is fuelling an obsession with beauty, and meets young Koreans who are changing their faces to look as good as their idols.  

For both women and men, there's a bewildering array of procedures available from an ever increasing number of clinics.

21-year-old Hwan Kim talks Jeannette through his 17 procedures and tells her that he still wants more.

See the story above.

You can also watch a recent edition of SBS Insight, which discussed the growing trend of people altering their ethnic features, and find out about SBS's dedicated Pop Asia radio and TV programs for fans 


Jeannette writes for the Dateline blog about how engrained the obsession with beauty has become in South Korean society...

I generally tend to take sweeping statements about a populace with a bucket of salt. Before I left for South Korea, one of my colleagues (himself of Korean descent) had this warning for me: 'They’re very superficial," he said, shaking his head in dismay. 'They’re completely obsessed with looks."

He told me tales of the schoolgirls who would get given plastic surgery as graduation gifts; the mother-daughter teams that would cash in on the two-for-one clinic discounts; the pervasive desire to 'look more western’. Nicole Kidman, he said, with her high nose, big eyes, slim jaw and white skin was considered the pinnacle of beauty.

In reality, that pinnacle is much closer to home and it’s shaping a generation with a penchant for plastic.

According to The Economist, South Korea has the highest rate of cosmetic procedures per capita in the world. Some reports place the number of South Korean women who have had a cosmetic procedure at one in five. In the city’s ritzy Gangnam district (made famous by the sashaying satirist Psy) there’s a strip known as the 'beauty belt’, a suburb filled with hundreds of plastic surgery clinics and little else. It has one of the highest concentrations of plastic surgery clinics in the world.  

Along this strip is Dr Rhee Se Whan’s clinic, Grand Plastic Surgery. In the last five years, Dr Rhee has seen an increasing number of young people getting surgery. Ninety per cent of the clinic’s clientele are under the age of 30 and of them, half are under 18. But what’s interesting is why.  

'K-Pop stars and Korean celebrities have influenced the younger generation [to get plastic surgery]. For example, if you look at the before and after photos of K-pop stars you’ll see they have gotten prettier. When people see this change, they want to be pretty as well, they want to look as good as them," says Dr Rhee.

K-Pop is an international phenomenon. The pop stars are known for their catchy tunes, synchronised dance moves, trend setting fashion and flawless faces; those big eyes, high noses and slim jawlines -  features not inherently Korean. They’re also known for the amount of plastic surgery they get. With reference to one particular girl group, I was told their faces changed each time they released a new song.

There are exceptions, but it’s a generally accepted principle that to succeed in the pop industry, you must be beautiful, in other words you must have those aforementioned features that define beauty. And if you – like most Koreans – are not born with these you can – and should – change them and many pop stars do.

I wasn’t entirely surprised to hear about the K-Pop industry’s cosmetic compulsion, despite how systematic and excessive it seemed. What was surprising, however, was that the plight for perfection trickled down to the country’s youth.

Dr Rhee says the majority of young people come in to get what’s known as double eyelid surgery, where a second eyelid is created to make the eyes look bigger. (If you’re reading this and are not of north Asian descent, odds are you already have a double eyelid that you’ve probably never paid much attention to.)

'During school holidays, half the class would come in and get surgery done and when they go back to school, their friends would see that they’ve become prettier so in the next break you would have the other half of the class coming in," Dr Rhee tells me. I immediately picture a hoard of giggling schoolgirls rushing with oversized backpacks laden with books into the clinic. The reality is more understated but not by much.  

Beauty and image play a critical role in Korean society (you must include a headshot on your resume for example) and everyone – and I mean everyone I interviewed – believed the prettier you are, the more likely you are to succeed, be that at pop stardom or otherwise.    

What my visit made clear is that there is an ideal standard of beauty in South Korea, one encapsulated by the country’s pop stars. Whether it’s natural or not doesn’t particularly matter. As the K-Pop phenomenon grows so too does the plastic surgery industry. Coincidence? That depends on who you speak to.

Behind The Scenes

Related Links


Now, here's a question for you - what holds the record for the most popular clip on YouTube? With a staggering 1.4 billion views, it is the Korean pop sensation Psy and his worldwide megahit Gangnam style. The catchy tune proves that, Korean pop culture or K-Pop is being heard and danced to around the globe. But more than that, K-Pop is having a dramatic impact on the image of Korea's youth. Jeannette Francis explains from Seoul.

REPORTER: Jeannette Francis

It is minus 3 degrees in Seoul and fans have been waiting for hours to see their idols. The falling mercury does not seem to concern the who's who of Korea's pop music world. They arrive for another awards ceremony and cream for the cameras.

WOMAN (Translation): You think K-Pop stars are beautiful?

GIRLS: Yes, popular and beautiful! Their dancing - perfect. Their face is different. Big eyes

This is what sends young Koreans into a frenzy and has taken the world by storm. Catchy tunes and flashy performances by doe-eyed starlets and dapper pin-up boys. They rarely speak publicly about their penchant for plastic, but cosmetic surgery among K-Pop stars is so rampant it is parodied.

SONG (Translation): You know I'm pretty, but with no surgery? You wouldn't know the difference. Idols have all had plastic surgery, you call me 'plastic monster.' Plastic face.

But the pursuit for perfection extends much further than Korea's entertainment elite.

HWAIN (Translation): It makes me happy to think that I'll look prettier after today, I am looking forward to my surgery.

Hwain has just finished high school, and her mother has given her a graduation gift. Eye surgery.

MOTHER (Translation): I hope it turns out well and she becomes prettier. When Hwain looks at herself she thinks she is ugly. We don't think this way but she does. Because every K-Pop star on TV looks so pretty, like a doll, she sees them as a standard of what is beautiful.

Hwain will be going to university with new friends and new opportunities.

MOTHER (Translation): So we thought if plastic surgery will help her feel more confident, maybe it is not such a bad idea.

DOCTOR RHEE SE WHAN (Translation): Hello.

Hwain is about to undergo what is called double eyelid surgery. Her surgeon, Dr Rhee Se Whan will create a second eyelid to make her eyes look bigger. It is one of the most popular procedures here in Korea. I'm told an increasing amount of teenagers are asking for this procedure straight out of high school, before they head to college.

DOCTOR RHEE SE WHAN (Translation): So what I have done is puncture very small holes where her second eyelid will be.

The whole procedure is over in 40 minutes. Hwain will spend a short time in recovery before heading home, and will return in a week to have her stitches removed.

DOCTOR RHEE SE WHAN (Translation): K-Pop stars and Korean celebrities have influenced. If you look at a before and after picture of a K-Pop star, you will see that they have gotten prettier. When people see the change, they want to be pretty as well. They want to look as good as them.

Like Hwain, Gina, Sally and Laura are recent high school graduates, and have agreed to meet me to talk about image and plastic surgery.

GINA: I don't think any celebrity has not retouched their face.

We grab a few magazines and head to a nearby cafe.

GINA: Almost everyone gets it - especially in normal high schools. Once people graduate, almost all of them get double eyelid surgery done.

REPORTER: Have you felt pressured to do it?

GINA: I've thought about it. Not in America, but in Korea, there are so many more people who are talking about it. You think, "Oh, should I get it done too?"

Two of the girls also went to high school in the US. They say surgery is driven by an admiration of celebrities.

SALLY: That is the difference. Like, in America, you will say, "I want a skinnier nose." But in Korea, they say, "I want the eyes of whoever, I want the nose of whoever. Please make my nose into the style of this star."

REPORTER: Who are we looking at here?

GINA: They are 9 girls and they are in an idol group called Girls Generation.

REPORTER: Have they had surgery?

GINA: Yeah. Definitely! All of them - 100%!

LAURA: Many, many, many plastic surgeries. Many! Every time they come out, they come out with surgery...Their faces change.

Eyelid surgery can cost up to $2,000. If you cannot afford it, the girls tell me there is another way of getting the coveted big eyes.

GINA: This is what Koreans call the double eyelid sticker. I've never used it before but according to my friends, they said that it is the easiest and the cheapest way of making double eyelids. I took it off! So it looks like a half moon.

SALLY: Yes! Look at her eyes!

This is the district of Gangnam, home to K-Pop's major entertainment companies, and it's also home to South Korea's beauty belt - an area of the highest concentration of plastic surgery clinics in the world, which caters to an ever increasing foreign clientele.

EUNJEONG: So from here the entire street has more than 300 plastic surgery clinics.

REPORTER: This street alone.

EUNJEONG: Yes, this street alone, each building has more than three or four plastic surgery clinics.

Artist Eunjeong says the rapid growth of Koreas plastic surgery industry is concerning, especially because of its connection to the entertainment world.

EUNJEONG: They send people from the agencies, they can get discount and then from that, they can use their face for the commercial advertisement.

Even the subway has become a billboard for cosmetic surgery.

EUNJEONG: They change their facial shape, they cut down their cheekbone, made their eyes bigger their face, their eyes change. They make big eyes, front and back, and they put some fat underneath. They implant hair.

Eunjeong knows the passageways well - they inspired her to create an art installation on what she calls Korea's obsession with beauty.

EUNJEONG: They choose one or two types of very beautiful women, with an ideal face. And every woman tries to turn into exactly the same.

This is my studio, and this work is from my exhibition Body Factory. Every work in here comes down to the people losing their identity. That is why they treat their body as a product, they are losing the meaning of who they are.

REPORTER: Do you feel like that is happening as a society here?


REPORTER: Because I heard it described as a plastic surgery obsession.


REPORTER: Do you think that Korea is obsessed with plastic surgery?

EUNJEONG: I don't think it is obsessed with plastic surgery but obsessed with the way they look.

We are heading outside Seoul's city to meet a man who's had several procedures done to his face on his jaw, his nose, his eyes. Now, while it is true that more women get plastic surgery here in South Korea, it is by no means exclusive to women. A growing number of men are also getting surgical procedures.

HWAN KIM (Translation): If you cut your jawline a bit, I think you could be really pretty.

At just 21, Hwan Kim has had 17 procedures so far.

HWAN KIM (Translation): The number of times? I have done my eyes three times, my nose once, my chin, cheekbones, my squared jawline.

And that's not counting botox injections and fillers.

REPORTER: You don't want to show us the pictures? Why?

HWAN KIM (Translation): I'm embarrassed. Shame, shame.

This is what Hwan looked like before he began to reshape his appearance.

HWAN KIM (Translation): I had a complex about my appearance, so the most important thing is when I met up with people I used to wear a mask or when I talked to people, I'd always cover my mouth.

Hwan has spent $30,000 on cosmetic surgery. And his friends want surgery too.

HWAN'S FRIEND (Translation): My nose, cheekbones, chin and what else did you say? Botox!

FRIEND (Translation): I want to get braces and shave down my jaw.

Night falls and the city streets come alive. Hwan and his friends are getting ready for a night out. He says his cosmetic compulsion is paying off.

HWAN KIM (Translation): Now I have a lot of confidence in the way I look, I want to meet people, I want to meet girls and I really believe this has been made possible through plastic surgery.

In another dimly-lit room on the other side of Seoul is a very different music world. Playing tonight is an indie band called Love X Stereo. Its front woman, Annie, has invited me to watch them perform. She spent years in the pop industry signed to a mainstream entertainment company as a solo artist. In order to make it big, she was told to change her sound, and her face.

ANNIE: They liked my voice, but they didn't like my appearances, so they wanted me to have plastic surgery here and there, like nose, my eyes. They occasionally talked about my teeth a lot because I have very - yeah, rabbit teeth.

REPORTER: Why did you decide against it?

ANNIE: Because I like my face.

The band rehearses and records in its own small rented space. Each member has a second job to support themselves - a small price to pay, says Annie, for creative freedom.

REPORTER: Some of the criticisms of K-Pop has been that it is a very manufactured industry.

ANNIE: Yeah, absolutely. It is. They kind of, you know, recruit young kids, like 13, 14, and they make something - they kind of grow them into - in a certain way, and cut them along the way, and make a group.

ADRIEN LEE, PRESENTER: Here we go, this is the band!

K-Pop dominates much of Korea's entertainment news.

ADRIEN LEE: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the show, we are happy to have you here with us on Showbiz Korea Time.

Adrien Lee hosts Showbiz Korea, a daily entertainment show broadcast around the world on Korea's only English-speaking network.

ADRIEN LEE: We have some K-Pop news coming your way - big news, actually.

Adrien also hosts his own radio show on Korean culture. He says even though pop stars get surgery to improve their prospect, talent still plays a big part in the K pop industry.

ADRIEN LEE: No matter how much plastic surgery you get, it will not make you a big star. You need to have talent. Maybe on top of that, later on you can add a plus alpha, with a little bit of plastic surgery, but that won't initially play a big role for you to become a huge star.

As he shows me around the network, we meet a group hoping to become the next big thing.

ADRIEN LEE: We just bumped into a group, coming into record a show here at Arirang. You mentioned stuff about the visuals, the looks. You can have a look - this is a new group. Can you introduce yourself.

GROUP (Translation): One, two, three; Purple, purple, Purpley. Hello, we are Purpley!

ADRIEN LEE: OK, there you go! Great! That is how they introduce themselves.

REPORTER: So many young people look up to them, and think they are really attractive.

GROUP (Translation): Good! We're very nervous, we hope to have a lot of influence on the younger generation.

They tell me they have not had any surgery. But, as they walk away, I wonder whether that will change. 18-year-old Hwain has returned to her clinic a week after her eye surgery to have her stitches removed. Her eyelids are still swollen, but she is positive about the result.

MOTHER (Translation): Are you happy with your surgery?

HWAIN (Translation): Yes. Yes, I'm happy.

And mum is also satisfied.

MOTHER (Translation): Well, double eyelid surgery generally makes people prettier, I think Hwain will look even prettier, more than I expected.

Ten minutes after arriving, Hwain leaves with new eyes. The first step, I'm told, to becoming beautiful.






Original Music Composed by

19th March 2013