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Nips, tucks, implants a career move

CHOI Jin Soon has found a way to get ahead on the job: more hair. In December, the salesman at a South Korean food company spent 4 million won (US$2,930), a little more than his monthly pay, to graft 3,560 hair follicles on his frontal scalp.

For four hours, Choi laid awake under local anesthesia as plastic surgeon Kang Jang Seok dug strands from the back of his head and implanted them on the balding areas. He said he expects to feel younger and more confident meeting clients when the follicles start growing in six months.

Once panned as frivolous or effeminate, plastic surgery is gaining popularity among South Korean men seeking better social and job prospects.

Men now account for 15 percent of Korea's nip-and-tuck procedures, compared with 10 percent in 2006, according to Hong Jeong Geun, spokesman at the Korean Association of Clinical Plastic Surgeons.

In the United States, the world's largest cosmetic surgery market, men account for about 9 percent of all such operations, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS).

"For many women, this is a luxury; for men, it's more about survival than vanity," said Hong.

South Korea's cosmetic surgery market is worth about 600 billion won annually, according to Seoul-based market researcher Read & Leader Corp, citing the National Tax Service. That just takes into account the authorized operators. Include unlicensed and non-taxed procedures, and the figure is closer to 3 trillion won, according to the researcher.

Based on ASPS figures last year, the South Korean market is one-fifth the size of the US'. The global market for cosmetic industry is estimated to be worth more than US$30 billion a year.

Even as the jobless rate in Asia's fourth biggest economy rose to the highest since August 2006, male patient numbers are dropping at a slower pace. That suggests nip-and-tuck surgeries for men, who have still more purchasing power than women, may rebound more strongly than the industry average when the economy recovers, Hong said.

"Men have just started entering the market. They have a lot of growth potential," said Hong.

Appearance is one of the most important aspects in getting, and keeping, a job in a nation where men are the main breadwinners in 80 percent of households, said Kang, Choi's surgeon, who has performed more than 3,000 surgeries on men in the past four years.

His practice is in the wealthy district of Apgujeong, with the highest concentration of plastic surgery clinics in Seoul.

Kang says the economic slowdown hasn't reduced his workload at Misoyou Plastic, where he still sees about 10 patients a day. Men now account for about 20 percent of his clients, and most of them seek nose jobs or hair implants, he said.

"Men have cut down on their bar bill and vacation budget. But they are still investing in their appearance," said Kang. "People believe it pays to look good."

About 31 percent of Korean job-seekers said they were willing to undergo plastic surgery because appearance has become an important factor in finding a job, according to a survey last month by recruiting firm Saramin. Public opinion is also easing up on male plastic surgery as more prominent men own up to it. Kim Dong Wan, a vocalist of famous singing group Shinhwa and star of the popular TV drama "A Farewell to Sorrow," said in 2007 that he had a nose job. The office of former President Roh Moo Hyun said in 2005 he had corrective eyelid surgery.

More patients are asking to look like celebrities such as Lee Min Ho and Kim Hyun Joong, stars of drama "Boys Over Flowers," the Korean version of the Japanese manga "Hana Yori Dango," about the love life of four good-looking and wealthy college students, according to Kang.

Hong said men in their 20s are the biggest age group to go under the knife, while older men prefer wrinkle smoothers like Botox injections and facial fillers that plump up sagging areas. Since Korean television began showing "Boys Over Flowers" this year, more men have asked to refine their features.

"The surge coincided with the rise to fame of these handsome actors," said Kang of Misoyou.


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