A grim frugality has settled over this export powerhouse that once burst with optimism — and silicone.
Cosmetic surgery took off here after South Korea’s spectacular recovery from its currency crisis a decade ago. Rising living standards allowed ever-growing numbers of men and women to get the wider eyes, whiter skin and higher nose bridges that define beauty for many here. Improved looks were even seen as providing an edge in this high-pressure society’s intense competition for jobs, education and marriage partners.
But turmoil coursing through the financial world and then into the global economy has hit South Korea hard, as it has many middle-income countries. The downturn drove down the stock market and the currency by a third or more last year, and the resulting anxiety forced many South Koreans to change their habits.
A particular chill has seeped into the plastic surgery industry, emptying waiting rooms and driving clinics out of business.
“In hard times, people always cut back on luxuries like eating out, jewelry and plastic surgery,” said one plastic surgeon, Park Hyun, who has seen the number of his patients drop sharply. “If this is a normal recession, then these desires will eventually get reignited, and our patients will come back.”
After a pause, Park added: “If this downturn is like the Great Depression, then we are all going to get killed off.”
It is hard to measure the exact size of the industry here or the extent of the current downturn because no one keeps exact figures. Seoul-based ARA Consulting, which specializes in the plastic surgery industry, said reports from surgeons and local media suggest the number of patient visits each month is down 40 percent since September.
That would be a huge setback to this once fast-growing industry. From a luxury limited to the wealthy a decade ago, according to ARA, plastic surgery has become so common that an estimated 30 percent of Korean women aged 20 to 50, or some 2.4 million women, had surgical or nonsurgical cosmetic procedures last year, with many having more than one procedure.
That compares with 11.7 million cosmetic procedures performed last year in the US, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, meaning that the number of procedures in the US is 4.9 times the number in South Korea, though the US’ population is more than six times larger.
“As South Korea became wealthier, it was just one more thing that women desire,” said Yoon Sung-min, ARA’s chief executive. He said many doctors were drawn to plastic surgery because payment is outside of the national health care system’s price controls, allowing bigger profits.
Nowhere has the boom, and the currently unfolding bust, been more apparent than Seoul’s fashionable shopping neighborhood of Apgujeong.
More than half of South Korea’s 627 registered cosmetic surgery clinics are here — their names, including Dr For You and Ivy Plastic, visible among the fashion boutiques and wine bars.
But their once-crowded waiting rooms are empty. For sale signs have begun appearing on clinic doors for the first time in memory, and some 20 clinics have already closed.
Park, the plastic surgeon, predicts a third of Apgujeong’s clinics could close by spring.
“This is the Mecca of plastic surgery in Asia,” said Park, who sat in his lavishly decorated wood-paneled clinic overlooking the neighborhood. “But even a Mecca can fall on hard times.”