Cosmetic eye surgery costs only $3 in North Korea, but it’s punished with forced labor

October 4, 2013

North Korean teenagers clap as they watch a performance in Pyongyang. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

"To the girls who were not born with double-eyelids, double-eyelid surgery is a little magic granting their wishes to be prettier," North Korean defector Mina Yoon writes in her most recent column for NKNews.org about life inside the Hermit Kingdom.

The cosmetic surgery is extremely common in South Korea, where "big" eyes are perceived as more attractive than the epicanthic folds prevalent among East Asians. It turns out, according to Yoon, it's also common in North Korea, which has similar – and similarly rigid – standards of beauty. Plastic surgery is illegal there, considered an ideologically subversive form of individual and class self-expression. But it's still highly sought-after and, Yoon says, costs the equivalent of just $2 to $3. That's no small sum in North Korea, one of the world's poorest countries, but it's still remarkably cheap.

For all the popularity of the procedure among young North Korean girls, it's still forbidden, a ban enforced with the meticulous invasiveness for which North Korea is infamous. At Yoon's high school, inspectors would arrive at random to examine girls' eyelids for any signs of the surgery. Anyone suspected of having artificially widened her eyelids would be made to do punitive labor, to "donate" costly building materials such as concrete or at the very least to write a formal apology, the last of which is more pernicious than it sounds in a country obsessed with ideological fealty and permanent records.

The girls may have been easier to catch in part because the surgeries could be shoddy. Doctors, themselves wary of being caught but often in need of extra income, would slip into peoples' home to cut and re-fold their eyelids. Some patients, Yoon writes, could be left "with an unnatural look and some post-surgery side effects."

Still, for all that this story that's so particular to North Korea and its stern enforcement of rigid ideological rules of every possible kind, what's even more striking is what makes it universal. At its heart, it's about teenage girls who want to be pretty but for whom the ideal can seem perpetually out of reach. Here, from Yoon, is what some girls would do when they couldn't afford the $3 surgery:

To the girls who were not born with double-eyelids, double-eyelid surgery is a little magic granting their wishes to be prettier. Some of my friends who could not afford the surgery tried to make double-eyelids with transparent sticky tapes made in the shape of eyelids. But the stickiness of the tapes did not last long, so the “eyelids” would start falling off and dangling before my friends had even arrived at school.

Yoon, who served as a soldier before defecting, is a regular contributor to NKNews.org's "Ask a North Korean" feature, which allows readers to submit question to North Korean defectors. You can read more of them here.

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Max Fisher · October 3, 2013