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South Korea Sees More Medical Tourists Rush in for Plastic Surgery

South Korea Sees More Medical Tourists Rush in for Plastic Surgery

Thursday January 12, 2012

In Seoul, the city's self-styled "Beauty Belt" is packed with more than 200 plastic surgery clinics boasting the cutting edge technology and dexterity that have made South Korea's cosmetic surgeons famous across Asia, and popular among Asian Americans, too.

Most people here focus on the pop culture celebrities pushing a "Korean Wave" around the world, said physician Kim Byung Gun, founder of the BK Plastic Surgery Hospital, Seoul's largest.

"Almost all the movie stars and singers have had plastic surgery, so the people who love them want to have the same surgery," he said.

North Korea, hardly open at the best of times, is currently closed to all foreign tourists. But the South actively seeks more visitors, especially high-spending medical tourists such as Nguyen Van Anh. Clutching a picture of her favorite Korean actress, whom she aims to resemble, Nguyen prepared for nose surgery at BK.

"I want to be beautiful, so I am not afraid," said Nguyen, 31, who flew in from Vietnam, with her Singaporean husband, for the operation.

For three years, the real estate agent has watched and wept, almost daily, as actress Song Hye Kyo simpered through various TV dramas, dubbed into Vietnamese.

"Her beauty is very natural and harmonious, even though I know she's had plastic surgery," Nguyen said. "They are all beautiful in Korean TV dramas."

China also has fallen under South Korea's spell. Korean fashion, make-up and music are easily accepted by other East Asians, and far more readily than the often larger-size American or European designs, said Wang Na, 27, a school administrator from Beijing.

"Their faces better suit our faces too," said Wang, who has just completed double eyelid surgery, a common procedure for Asian women seeking a more Westernized look, at Kim's BK hospital. Chinese visitors now make up 90% of BK's foreign patients, and total foreign business stands at 30%, according to the hospital.

Wang said she hopes to do nose-reduction surgery on her next trip to Korea and is pressuring her fiancé, so far without success, to have his nose done, too.

South Korea will welcome more than 150,000 medical tourists next year, up from 120,000 in 2011, and 82,000 in 2010, predicted Kim Min Ji, a member of the medical tourism department at the state-run Korea Tourism Organization (KTO). The largest and fastest-growing sector is plastic surgery, she said.

Some 32% of South Korea's medical tourists are from the United States, with China fast rising in second place. A quarter of the U.S. figures include troops stationed in South Korea. Korean Americans and other Asian Americans are the main U.S. target customers, the KTO's Kim said.

Costs at BK are about two-thirds the prices in the United States, but each surgery can still cost several thousand dollars.

Unlike Caucasians who are reluctant to "cut skin on the face" and prefer breast surgery, liposuction and facelifts, Asians "are very willing to have invasive procedures to change face and body," primarily eyelid, nose and facial bone surgery, according to Kim, the physician.

Some are too willing, cautions Giny Kho, a medical counselor working at the Seoul Medical Tourist Information Center.

A handful of Asian tourists, toting pictures of their idols, betrayed signs of psychological problems with their obsession to resemble them, said Kho, a nurse for more than 20 years.

Seoul post office clerk Lee Kyung Mi, 28, was at the hospital to prepare for chin correction and jawbone surgery, her fifth plastic surgery procedure. She denied being obsessed or trying to copy her favorite actress Han Jee Min.

"I save my salary and get a discount now," explained Lee on how she has afforded eyelid and nose jobs, facial fat graft and breast enlargement.

They're worth every cent, says Lee, who credits her new looks with securing both her job and her boyfriend.

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Tags: medical tourism, South Korea, plastic surgery, China, cosmetic surgery, international patients

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