The high demand for plastic surgery has seen South Korea surge ahead in technology, while prices remain low, a package that brings in medical tourists from throughout the rest of Asia. In spite of a perception abroad that customers want to look more western, it is the specialization in Asian ideals of beauty that feeds demand.
I meet 52-year-old Sooyong in the peaceful oasis of the palace district where she works as a guide to the five bowed-roof royal residences that are, to my eye, rather florid. As we stroll around, she tells me that, although cosmetic surgery is increasingly common, it is very much the preserve of the city’s young.
“I don’t think I know anyone over the age of 35 who has had any,” she says. “Today’s young people are extremely competitive. They want to be best at school, to get the best jobs and to be the most beautiful. Even though plastic surgery is really expensive, if it means standing out in the crowd, the youngsters will somehow find the money. It is the same with clothes. Lots of young people spend all of their income on designer labels, and many are in debt because of this.”
When Sooyong was young, this kind of personal gratification was a no-no, she says. “Our parents raised us to be community-minded. We socialized with our neighbours all the time, sharing our good moments and our tragedies with them. And we felt a shared responsibility to improve our country’s standard of living, we wanted to be its ambassador to the world.”
As a guide, Sooyong is taking this ambassadorial role very seriously and her pride, almost 30 years into the job, is touching. What is more, like her fellow palace guides, all of whom appear well into their middle and twilight years, she is not paid for showing her city’s palatial treasures.
Conversely, Seoul’s MTV generation is “greatly influenced by foreign culture, particularly American. Some of them don’t even like kimchi. They say it is too spicy!” says Sooyong, shaking her head in disbelief.
Earn up to 10% on every booking you make, for yourself or others. Learn more now!