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Surgeon Kim Byung Gun operates on a patient's nose in one of Kim's four clinics in Seoul. Kim says most of his patients want to look like South Korean TV stars such as Kim Tae Hee, top left, Lee Young Ae and Song Hye-kyo. Clinics are desperately seeking skilled surgeons to keep up with demand. (Blaine Harden - Twp)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 30, 2007

SEOUL -- When they come in for plastic surgery, young women usually bring along a photograph torn from a celebrity magazine.

The photo almost always shows a comely star from South Korean soap operas, which are watched obsessively across Asia.

With wide eyes, sleek cheekbones and delicately upturned noses, the soap stars look alluringly and somewhat numbingly alike -- thanks to their own visits to the scalpel-wielding wizards whose gleaming clinics are clustered in a part of this city called "Makeover Town."

"It is like fast food," said a 25-year-old banker from Singapore, who a few days ago paid $13,000 for narrowed cheeks and widened eyes. Her black-and-blue face was still puffy and painful as she explained the pan-Asian appeal of plastic surgery, Seoul-style.

"There is no human touch," she said. "But the technique is very good, and the price is affordable."

The technique is so good, the price so affordable and demand so keen that Seoul has become a plastic-surgery boomtown. Promoted vigorously by the South Korean government, Seoul's clinics attract patients from Shanghai to Los Angeles to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Clinics here are desperately seeking skilled surgeons to keep up with demand from women -- and some men -- who want a face as seen on TV.

The banker with the puffy face, who asked that her name not be published because she had lied to her parents and boyfriend about her travel plans, arrived here from Singapore on a recent Friday morning and by 2 p.m. was under the knife of Kim Byung Gun.

Kim is a plastic surgeon who does about 20 faces a day and runs South Korea's largest chain of plastic surgery clinics. He has four in Seoul that perform 200 surgical procedures a day, and he has invested in two private hospitals in Shanghai, where he says the Chinese avidly watch Korean soaps and where plastic surgery is fast becoming part of what it means to be a modern woman.

"They want to make their faces just like the Korean stars', and they know that the Korean plastic surgeons are most skilled at building these faces," said Kim, who added that his business has been growing by about 30 percent a year since 2000. He has had surgery to erase wrinkles around his eyes and narrow the look of his cheekbones and chin.

To accommodate the demand generated by what he says is a very lucrative business, Kim is replacing his main five-story clinic here in the heart of Makeover Town with an 18-story plastic surgery tower.

Precise numbers on how many nose, cheek, chin and eye jobs are being done in South Korea are difficult to find. But according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the number of plastic surgeons here jumped 45 percent between 2000 and 2005, from 926 to 1,344. In California, the plastic surgery capital of the United States, there are 1,321 plastic surgeons, according to the state's medical board.

The ministry's figures show that the price of cosmetic operations here is about the same as in Thailand but much cheaper than in Japan and the United States. An eyelid operation that costs about $1,500 in South Korea typically goes for twice as much in the United States.

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