Facelifts in vogue as South Korea adjusts to virus

When Lee Min-seo* emerged from one of Seoul’s most popular plastic surgery clinics, her bruised face was mostly hidden beneath a white surgical mask and bandages.

“I always wanted to get this done. Everyone’s wearing masks these days so this makes me more comfortable doing it now,” said Ms Lee, after receiving a series of fat injections.

While coronavirus has denied South Korea’s cosmetic surgeons their usual foreign tourists, they are welcoming a surge of local customers at the clinics that line the boulevards of the glitzy Gangnam district.

Working from home and other measures to reduce social interactions have apparently been good for people who had worried about attracting looks or questions during weeks wearing post-surgery bandages.

“People who wanted to have some cosmetic work done, but couldn’t do it because of a lack of time for recovery, have been increasingly visiting our clinics these days,” said Hwang Yong-seok, a Gangnam plastic surgeon.

One in three South Korean women in their 20s say they have already had “work done”, but the virus appears likely to raise that number.

“Facial contouring and breast surgeries” have been particularly popular, Mr Hwang said.

A doctor and nurse perform plastic surgery at JW Plastic Surgery’s clinic in the Apgujeong-dong area of the Gangnam district in Seoul, South Korea in 2013 Facial contouring and breast surgeries have been popular during the pandemic © Woohae Cho/Bloomberg

The willingness to spend on plastic surgery is a sign of how South Korea’s relative success in containing the virus — thanks to its aggressive testing, contact tracing and isolation tactics — has helped limit damage to the economy.

As Seoul launches a stimulus bazooka of more than $230bn to cushion the country from the pandemic, Gangnam’s plastic surgeons are offering discounts to encourage more patients to go under the knife by dipping into government cash.

After a 1.3 per cent first quarter contraction, led by a 6 per cent drop in consumption, the government is doling out emergency disaster relief funds worth Won14.3tn ($11.7bn).

Up to Won1m has been granted to four-person households in the form of credit card points, gift vouchers and prepaid cards, which have to be spent by the end of August. Further cash handouts are also being delivered by provincial governments.

Cosmetic procedures are among a clutch of luxury purchases the public is splurging on.

Even as uncertainty still weighs on consumers, fewer than half of Koreans are cutting back on spending, according to a McKinsey survey conducted last month. Non-essential spending is actually rising.

For many South Koreans, the handouts have prompted shopping sprees after months of worry and isolation. The buying binges have been dubbed “revenge spending”.

“It feels like I’ve got a bonus. My family is spending the money mostly at a gopchang restaurant, which we usually can’t go to because it is so expensive,” said Lee Hyun-jung, a 52-year-old fashion designer, referring to grilled beef intestine, a local delicacy.

Kim Jung-ran, a 57-year-old supermarket checkout operator, last weekend splashed out on a high-end hiking outfit. “Usually, I would be hesitant but I feel more comfortable spending these days because it is free money,” said Ms Kim.

The domestic consumption drive is critical for the export-dependent Korean economy. Exports, which account for about 40 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product, shrank by almost a quarter over the past two months.

“We expect a significant recovery in domestic consumption in the second quarter as the virus has been brought under control . . . Although the manufacturing sector is still in bad shape, consumer spending will provide some buffer,” said Park Seok-gil, an economist at JPMorgan.

Office workers taking a break in central Seoul on May 22 The government hopes that the consumer drive will spur an economic recovery © Ed Jones/AFP/Getty

However, the upbeat mood is not universal and unemployment data has pointed to future problems. In April, job losses rose at their sharpest pace in two decades.

“Things are so gloomy now that finding another job seems really difficult,” said Kim Jung-nam, a 58-year-old baggage handler subcontracting to Asiana Airlines, who lost his job this month.

Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, has vowed to create more than 500,000 public sector jobs. But analysts say there are limits to the government’s capacity to support the economy, which is still largely dependent on foreign demand.

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Park Chong-hoon, an economist at Standard Chartered, warned of a looming manufacturing sector shock amid a deepening global recession.

“The government subsidies are likely to provide just a one-time boost . . . Given the country’s heavy reliance on trade, a real recovery will come only after things get better in other countries,” he said.

Still, back at the Gangnam surgery few people hold such concerns.

“She has been receiving Botox injections regularly but she’s just taken a month of leave from work to get her nose and chin done,” said a woman in her sixties, waiting for her daughter.

*Lee Min-seo’s name has been changed to protect her privacy