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South Koreans Give Gift of Plastic Surgery

With warm spring weather comes a new season of holiday gift giving in South Korea. Children celebrate "Parent's Day" in May, and many parents see their children graduate from university in June. To mark the occasions, families are increasingly giving a gift that requires no wrapping paper, and puts a whole new look on the face of the recipient.

What do you get for that loved one who seems to have everything? For that young university graduate entering the world, or for the aging parents who have provided a lifetime of love and care?

If you are in South Korea, you might consider rhinoplasty, laser skin resurfacing or one of several other very common, widely available plastic surgery procedures.

Plastic surgery is not a new trend for South Koreans, who have been nipping and tucking for several decades. But Kim Hyun-ho, a longtime plastic surgeon in Seoul, says this year has been a boom year for patients whose procedures are a gift from a family member.

The most common operation by far, he says, is a basic procedure on the eyelids.

"I conduct about five eyelid surgeries a week," he said. "The procedure makes up about 80-90 percent of all plastic surgery done in South Korea."

It involves making a small slit above both eyes to create what is called a "double eyelid." Even South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has had it done, though he says it was part of a broader surgical effort to correct his eyesight.

Park Sun-woo, a middle-aged woman wearing sunglasses to camouflage the swelling and bandages around her eyes, says her surgery was a Parent's Day gift from her children.

"I used to get upset and even cry when I would see my wrinkles in the mirror," she said. "So my children wanted to make me feel better by paying for my plastic surgery. I am very grateful to them."

Lee Moon-ki, a small business owner in his 50s, says his wife and daughter treated him to his eyelid surgery, and he says he feels great.

Lee says South Koreans, who are in many ways socially conservative, have a very modern attitude about plastic surgery. People are living longer, he says, and aging people want to look younger.

When asked whether he would support his daughter in getting surgery, Lee is slightly more hesitant.

He says his daughter is so beautiful, nothing needs to be fixed. But if she insisted, he says, maybe her nose could be raised a bit.

Dr. Kim and other plastic surgeons say their appointment books were overflowing in May with similar patients, whose procedures were a Parents' Day gift from children.

As June begins, doctors say the appointments tend to shift to younger patients, who are receiving the gift of plastic surgery to celebrate graduations.

A female student named Lee says her mother gave her plastic surgery as a present to mark her acceptance into a university.

"My mother was the one who suggested I get surgery, after noticing that I was self-conscious about my appearance," she said.

An explosion in the number of plastic surgery clinics in South Korea has made operations relatively inexpensive, from about $800 for wrinkle-fighting botox injections, to several thousand dollars for more advanced procedures.

Seoul-based plastic surgeon Dr. Yang Jeong-ryol says the widespread acceptance of plastic surgery reflects a gradual, but profound shift in Korean culture.

He says once upon a time, being a successful Korean meant endurance: holding in feelings, keeping your head down, and working hard. Now, he says, being Korean is more about expression: presenting to the world what people here call "Ul-jjang", or "best face." For many families, plastic surgery is helping to turn that concept from an abstraction into a literal reality.