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Time for South Korea to face up to ugly obsession with plastic surgeryBacklash hits booming market as complaints of dodgy doctors and botched procedures doubleReuters in Seoul03 November 2014Kim Bok-soon disliked her nose and fantasised about changing it after learning of the Korean superstition that an upturned nose makes it harder to hold on to riches.While waiting in a hair salon, she saw a magazine advertisement for a plastic surgery clinic and decided to go for it, despite her family’s objections.In South Korea, where physical perfection is seen as a way to improve the quality of life, including job and marriage prospects, plastic surgery can seem as commonplace as haircuts.Kim’s doctor said he could turn her into a celebrity lookalike, and Kim decided to take the plunge, taking loans and spending 30 million won (HK$212,000) for 15 operations on her face over the course of a day.When the bandages came off, she knew something had gone horribly wrong. Later she learnt her doctor was not a plastic surgery specialist.Five years later, Kim struggles with an array of medical problems, and is unable to close her eyes or stop her nose from running. The divorcee, 49, is unemployed and suffers depression.“It is so horrible that people can’t look at my face,” Kim, crying, said in her tiny one-room Seoul flat filled with photographs from before and after the surgery.“This is not a human face. It is more revolting than a monster’s or an alien’s.”Kim’s doctor faces a pending criminal case on charges of violating medical law. The case began in 2009 after several patients including Kim reported him.The boom in South Korea’s US$5 billion plastic surgery industry - a quarter of the global market according to the country’s antitrust watchdog - is facing a backlash, with formal complaints about botched procedures and dodgy doctors doubling in 2013 from a year earlier.Some plastic surgeons say safety fears could stifle the country’s nascent but fast-growing market for medical tourism, especially from China.Complaints range from unqualified doctors to aggressive marketing to “ghost doctors”, who stand in for more qualified doctors and perform operations on unwitting patients.Cha Sang-myun, chairman of the Korean Association of Plastic Surgeons, which represents 1,500 plastic surgeons, is worried about their reputation. Cha and some lawmakers are among those calling for tighter supervision and stricter advertising rules.“We’ve got to clean ourselves up,” Cha said at his clinic in Seoul’s high-end Gangnam district, which is filled with plastic surgery clinics.“Now, patients from China are coming in the name of plastic surgery tourism, but if things go on like this I don’t think they will come in the next few years,” he said.South Korea is home to more than 4,000 plastic surgery clinics and has the world’s highest rate of cosmetic procedures - 13 for every 1,000 people in a population of 49 million - according to government data.The boom is gaining steam, fuelled by tourism, with the number of visiting Chinese patients tripling between 2011 and 2013.“Advertising too much has made people think surgeries are a commodity. People now think plastic surgeries are like buying stuff somewhere,” said Cha, who has performed such operations for more than two decades. “But plastic surgery is a surgery too, which can risk your life.”
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