SEOUL — In the offices of Grand Plastic Surgery in Seoul's glitzy Gangnam district, Rhee Se-whan has been busy nipping, tucking and keeping up with clients who see the coronavirus pandemic health rules as the ideal time to tweak their looks.
The doctor — and many others in South Korea's plastic surgery empire — find themselves in one of the more improbable niches of the pandemic: a miniboom even as other looks-conscious businesses such as fashion and salons have taken big hits from lockdowns and the shift to working from home.
Cosmetic surgery and skin clinics in South Korea recorded a 10 percent jump in sales in the first 10 months of 2020 from the previous year, according to a survey by the Hana Institute of Finance in Seoul.
That boost came without the normal medical tourists from overseas who flock to South Korea, a center in Asia for cosmetic surgery and one of the world's best-known locales for aesthetic procedures.
Some South Koreans — mainly women, but an increasing number of men as well — have become more self-conscious about lines or bags around their eyes because that's the only part of their face visible in a masked world.
There is also the Zoom effect — noted by some clinics in the United States and elsewhere — in which the chats with co-workers double as digital mirrors for people to stress over perceived wrinkles and lines. The result: a spike in Botox treatments.
Rhee’s patients include people like Kim, a woman in her 30s, who spoke on the condition that she is identified only by her surname out of privacy concerns. She had extra time and money on her hands after her vacation abroad was canceled last year.
“I’ve been considering it for the past five years, and the pandemic year turned out to be perfect timing,” she said.
Kim had what’s known in South Korea as “aristocrat surgery,” the removal of laugh lines she believes made her look older.
“My doctor told me it usually takes a week for post-surgical recovery, but I could actually go to work the day after the operation, as I was wearing a mask at the office the whole day,” she said. “My laugh lines were recovering underneath the mask as I was working.”
South Korea has the fifth-highest number of plastic surgeons in the world, with more than 2,500 in 2019, according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. That’s fewer than the 6,900 in the United States and the more than 6,000 in Brazil, but higher on a per capita basis.
Lee Eun-hee, a professor of consumer studies at Inha University in Incheon, said it reflects the country’s obsession with physical appearance.
“Girls these days grow up looking at K-pop stars who look like living dolls, and plastic surgery ads target women as young as teenagers,” she said.
In South Korea’s hypercompetitive society, she said, women face so much pressure to look good that it’s almost as though they are in a nationwide beauty contest.
“Korean women find good looks give them decisive leverage, not only in the dating and marriage market, but also in the job market,” she said.
Now, she said, people are making up for lost travel opportunities by splurging on things they can do at home — and plastic surgery is the “peak” item on the binge list.
Demand from South Koreans used to be bunched in the summer and winter holiday seasons, as well as just before the start of the college academic year. During the pandemic, it was spread throughout the year.
The number of people working from home is a big factor, said Rhee, the surgeon, whose office is adorned with photos of him posing with K-pop stars and actors.
“After a facelift, patients need to set aside time for recovery,” he said. “Since the pandemic, patients don’t need to take a week’s vacation anymore; they can spend that time working from home.”
Kim, the patient, says she and her colleagues increasingly share information about plastic surgery, including recommendations about good surgeons or clinics.
“Now that I have fully recovered from the aristocrat surgery, I am actually thinking of getting new facelifts before the pandemic is over,” she said.