Surgery Up as Beauty Counts in Capitalist NK

The summer has brought heightened demand for cosmetic surgery procedures in North Korea, with young women hurrying to complete both surgery and recovery processes in advance of the new university semester. This recent trend toward cosmetic surgery is reflective of important new cultural norms in the country.

“The demand on women
to look beautiful is much stronger than it used to be,” a source in Yangkang Province told Daily NK on August 13th. “Blepharoplasty [commonly known as ‘double-eyelid
surgery,’ a very common procedure in South Korea] and cosmetic tattooing on the
eyes and lips are all getting more popular these days.” 

Micropigmentation, or cosmetic tattooing, is a hassle-free alternative to applying eyebrow pencil, eyeliner or lip
liner every day. 
People with faint or partial eyebrows pay for permanent makeup, while others pay to convey the appearance of fuller eyelashes or tinted lips. The price for eyelid surgery is
18,000-20,000 KPW; micropigmentation procedures range
from 24,000-25,000 KPW, the exception being lip pigmentation, which costs in the
region of 18,000 KPW.

Nearly “one in five
university students will have a cosmetic surgery procedure at some point,”
the source predicted, adding that this is contributing to rising prices. She went on to
confirm that minor cosmetic surgical procedures are most common for women in their 20s. 

This is because young women are particularly
sensitive to the changing times, she said. 
The choice to go for cosmetic surgery is born of incentives as much as anything else: after all, as previously reported by the Daily NK, beauty is a major determinant in the selection of women to work abroad, a chance that many strive for. 

“They aren’t embarrassed
to have cosmetic procedures done,” she asserted. “If the change is blatant they may feel a bit sheepish,
but they 
don’t hide it if they’ve had a simple procedure like eyelid surgery
or lip pigmentation.” 

“The notion that ‘beauty brings
success’ rings true here, and women understand it better than anyone,” she added. “The
basic sentiment among people wanting to get surgery is that if they can get a
better future from it then it makes sense to get it done.”

The average recovery
time for a simple procedure is around two weeks. Since university students
cannot forfeit time away from their studies for a prolonged period, the summer
is a period of high demand. North Korea’s harsh winters, combined with persistent
heating fuel shortages, may result in swelling and infection, adding to the
pressure on physicians during the summer months.

Technically, cosmetic
surgery remains illegal under North Korean law. However, like many other of the country’s statutes, it goes on without impediment. “I’ve never heard of
anyone running into trouble because of eyelid surgery or permanent makeup
procedures,’ she said, adding that such operations are openly offered at
state-run hospitals and clinics.

However, citing costs,
“Most people get the procedures done in their own homes,” she said. “There are
licensed physicians who make house calls to perform these procedures, but the majority
are individuals who have picked up the skills themselves.” There is testimony
suggesting that this results in no small number of botched surgeries and
infections due to unsanitary conditions.

The Kim Jong Eun era emphasis
on youthfulness and appearance has contributed much to the trend,
with Kim’s wife Ri Sol Ju implicitly setting the standard for what is permissible. For instance, bans on women wearing pants and stringent regulations on skinny jeans have both
eased considerably since Kim came to power in late 2011. Accessories previously
listed as “anti-socialist” and representative of dangerous “capitalist winds”
have also made their way to the remotest areas of the country, while women in the capital have
developed a predilection for higher heels.

“People figure that if the Marshal’s wife is going to dress so fabulously then they aren’t going to crack down strongly on clothing for anyone else,” the source said. “Party officials were
the first to follow the Ri Sol Ju style, and now it has trickled down to most residents.”

“The idea of there
being some kind of ‘ideal Chosun woman’ with her bobbed hair, no makeup and skirt
down to the ankle is a complete thing of the past,” she concluded. “Spending
money on self-beautification is a fast growing concept.”

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