S Korea doctor a social revolutionary

AUDACIOUS: Kim Seok-kwan was the first doctor to perform sex-change operations in the conservative country, single-handedly impacting deeply on society

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , IPUSAN, SOUTH KOREA

Sun, Jun 22, 2003 - Page 5

There are precious few hints of the social revolutionary around Kim Seok-kwan, the 52-year-old doctor who single-handedly brought sex-change surgery to this deeply conservative country.

But there is no gainsaying Kim's audacity in introducing sex-change operations here in 1986. Nor do many South Koreans dispute the impact his surgery has had on a society where, even quite recently, sexual matters were mostly whispered about and few dared live openly as homosexuals.

That all began to change with the emergence of superstar Ha Risu, a slinky, silky-haired singer, actor, comedienne and model, armed with a 35-24-35 figure, who is now a fixture in the Korean entertainment firmament. Ha, whose adopted stage name is a play on the English phrase Hot Issue, lived most of her 28 years, unhappily, as a man, until Kim transformed her into a ravishing transgender beauty three years ago.

Kim is a plastic surgeon whose training was in facial and cranial operations, getting his start in sex-change surgery almost by accident. For years he performed the operations largely in obscurity, with awareness of his skills with a scalpel spreading mostly by word of mouth.

"In 1986, a male transvestite approached me and asked me if I could perform a sex-change operation," Kim said. "At that time, nobody knew anything about this sort of thing in Korea, and I told him I couldn't help him."

A couple of months later, the doctor said, another man approached him asking for a sex change. With that, Kim said he became intrigued enough to start reading up on the subject. Within a short time, Kim called the patient back and said he would operate.

The surgery was a first for South Korea. Not only that, but Kim also rejected the use of skin grafts for vaginal construction, which was the standard at the time.

Although the operation's success exceeded expectations, soon afterward Kim went to the University of California at Davis for a year to study more about sex change surgery. When he returned, he found a long list of candidates desperate for the operation.

For the first few years of performing gender-change surgery, Kim said, his patients were overwhelmingly working class or poor, and few could afford to travel abroad for the operation.

The first glimmers of celebrity came to Kim in 1991, with his first female-to-male surgery, which he also pioneered here. That operation caught the attention of the nation's news media.

The brouhaha eventually died down, but by the time it did, something had changed in Korean society. Taboo had been lifted, and sexual mores were suddenly being discussed much more openly in the media and portrayed with more realism in film.