Reframing the Korean Plastic Surgery Debate pt. 2: The IMF Crisis and the Rise of Hypercompetitiveness

Last week, we began a new series of articles which aim to explore the real reasons why South Korea has the highest rates of cosmetic surgery in the world. In the first part, I tried to debunk some of the so-called ‘truths’ put forward by western media outlets. Having looked at all the things which haven’t caused the surgery boom, this week I will be exploring the central role the Asian Financial Crisis played in this massive surge in cosmetic surgery uptake over the past 15 years.

Anyone who has seen a Korean sports game, TV drama or variety show will have undoubtedly heard the exclamation: ‘Hwaiting!’ used at some point. Taken from the English word ‘fighting’, ‘Hwaiting’ (화이팅 or 파이팅) is used constantly as a word of encouragement in a similar way English speakers would use ‘Go on!’ or ‘Do your best!’. That such an aggressive term has become so prevalent is a symbol of the determination and competitive spirit of the people of South Korea. This spirit has seen the country rise from one of the world’s poorest nations on earth in the 1960s to one of its largest economies by the mid-90s. However it has not come without challenges – the biggest being a financial crisis which nearly sent the whole economy tumbling.

Daewoo was arguably the biggest company to fall as a result of the crisis

The chaebol Daewoo was arguably the biggest company to fall as a result of the crisis

In 1997, the Asian financial crisis (or the IMF crisis as it’s often called in Korea) saw the metaphorical rug pulled from under the feet of South Korea. Many of the country’s largest companies filed for bankruptcy (or were shut down by the government) and unemployment skyrocketed as the Korean government was required to take drastic austerity measures by the International Monetary Fund in exchange for a loan to repay its massive debts. That Korea managed to turn itself around and pay back the loan in four years is a testament to the hard work and resourcefulness of the Korean people during that time. However it is also important to note the massive impact it has on day-to-day life ever since – most of which is negative.

The Korean economic model up to the IMF crisis is one which may seem alien to many westerners. Moulded by a series of authoritarian leaders (in particular military dictator Park Chung-hee), the Korean economy depended on a very top-down model with a small number of large family run conglomerates (known as chaebols). These chaebols had close ties to the government which in turn had a large influence over the way they operated. For all its faults (and there are many – corruption and bad working environments to name just a couple) this model guaranteed stability for employees and Korea enjoyed extremely low rates of unemployment as a result for a very long time.

This all ended suddenly in 1997.

Thousands of people lost their jobs overnight and unemployment rates nearly quadrupled in two years. Although unemployment rates have mostly recovered since then youth unemployment still remains very high and Korean employees can no longer rely on a long and stable career at one company the way that many had in the past. This coupled with the highest university graduation rates in the world has led to an ultra-competitive job market in which job-seekers must be willing to do anything required to get ahead.

For many candidates faced with tough competition from hundreds of equally qualified applicants, a more attractive appearance can make the difference between getting and not getting the job. This is exacerbated by the fact that Korean job applications always have a space for a photo of the applicant (a practice which is illegal in many European countries and the US) meaning that a candidate’s appearance can go against them before they even make it to interview.

An advert for men's cosmetic surgery

An advertisement for men’s cosmetic surgery

In a survey conducted last year, 4 out of 10 Korean people felt that they had been discriminated against because of their appearance with half of them having never been hired at all as a direct result. This means 20% of the people interviewed felt that the reason they had never been hired was solely down to their appearance. It’s no surprise then that, in the same survey, 85.2% felt appearance has an effect on the outcome of job hunting.

Under these extremely tough conditions, the link between the start of the plastic surgery boom in Korea and the IMF crisis can be seen clearly and also explains why it is utilised much more by men and young women than in other countries with high cosmetic surgery rates.

Women, already facing discriminatory hiring practices (the biggest chaebol recruited one woman for every three men into their entry-level programme in 2010 despite an almost 50/50 split in graduation numbers by gender) and the highest gender wage gap in the OECD, are under even more pressure to conform to a high standard of appearance. While in many western countries a young woman who seeks out cosmetic surgery might be viewed as vain and superficial, for many Koreans it is a sign that she is ambitious and determined to succeed in both the professional and personal arenas. Plastic surgery, particularly natural-looking, ‘Korean-like’ surgery, has become a status symbol and a sign of success, increasingly important factors for a man looking to marry a ‘good woman’ who is both attractive and a high wage earner.

stock plummetIn a series of posts about the sudden massive increase in rates of suicide after the IMF crisis, The Korean argues that the crisis created sudden social changes which led to a ‘commodification’ of people, which in turn lead to soaring suicide rate. Although this is to some degree an inherent part of modern capitalist economies, it had been largely avoided by the top-down economy and a strong community spirit within companies up until that point but hit hard suddenly during the crisis. It could be argued that this ‘commodification’ has also been a driving factor in the plastic surgery boom as people are no longer sure of their place in the world and are driven to make themselves into the highest value product possible.

The hypercompetitive nature of modern Korean society which has come to exist mostly as a result of the 1997 financial crisis, has clearly played a central role in the massive increase in rates of cosmetic procedures in Korea. This has been further exacerbated by a huge consumer culture and easy and relatively cheap access to surgery.

However this is still not the full story. While plastic surgery could be seen to some degree to be a product of the crisis, there are also other cultural and social influences (such as a widespread belief in physiognomy, the reading of faces, and the ever-present Neo-Confucianism) which, many have argued, have led to rates of surgery on a scale that no other country has seen.

In the final part of the series next week, I will be looking at the influence of these values on the rates of cosmetic surgery uptake in South Korea and how they have helped to create the most surgically enhanced nation on Earth.

(Sources: ‘Korea: The Impossible Country‘ by Daniel Tudor, ‘Gender, Globalization and Aesthetic Surgery in South Korea‘ Ruth Holliday and Joanna Elfving-Hwang, AskAKorean)

Read more here:


Reframing the Korean Plastic Surgery Debate pt. 1: Debunking Western Media

Reframing the Korean Plastic Surgery Debate pt. 3: Modern History, Traditional Culture

Let us know your thoughts about Korean plastic surgery in the comments.

This is part of a series of posts about body image in Korea.

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  • Josh Chinnery

    Even though you say that’s not the full picture, it definitely paints a picture in which one becomes empathetic to modern Korea. I knew that life in Korea as a Korean was hard (hyper competitive school system, extreme suicide rates), but this really makes me really sit back and think about how well off I am. Great article, I’m anticipating the third part.

  • Safitri Bonea

    great analysis, I just found out that the IMF crisis led this kind of phenomenon. however, plastic surgery has been a massive trend. parents even give it as birthday present for their kids. and appearance becomes very important in korean social life as I read in several experiences. but, I admit that body commodification has changed korea into a place where every eye is now turning into.

  • pk@fire

    You guys fucking ROCK. Even as a Korean, this series (and this blog in general) just is PHENOMENAL at showing and analyzing different trends in Korea. Thank you so much for this!

  • roronoa

    So south korea has new ideology now, ‘better appearance means better life’.

  • DiaboloMootopia .

    Your analysis is far better than most on the internet, but I still don’t see how Korea’s job market has become uniquely “hypercompetitive” because of the crisis. Many countries have unemployment problems, and the job market is competitive. But people there do not consider going for surgery to be a step worth taking just to get a job.

    I’ve been to Korea and it appears to be more prosperous than many parts of America and Europe. Unemployment rates are low. I think the issue in Korea is that people don’t just want a job, they want a job at a really famous company like Samsung. People don’t need to get surgery just to get a job. So why is there this idea that only a job at a famous chaebol is acceptable?