Working From Home? Korean Cosmetic Surgeons Couldn’t Be Happier - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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Seoul’s plastic surgeons are benefiting from their customers’ work-from-home practices.

When Lee Min-seo* emerged from one of Seoul’s most popular plastic surgery clinics, her bruised face was 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,” says Lee, who received a series of fat injections.

While the 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 been welcomed by people who ordinarily would worry about attracting looks or questions while 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,” says Dr. Hwang Yong-seok, a Gangnam plastic surgeon.

One in 3 South Korean women in their 20s say they have already had “work done,” and the virus appears likely to increase that number. “Facial contouring and breast surgeries” have been particularly popular, Hwang says.

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 $230 billion 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 percent first quarter contraction, led by a 6 percent drop in consumption, the South Korean government is doling out emergency disaster relief funds worth $11.7 billion. Some of that 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 that the public is splurging on.

Usually, I would be hesitant, but I feel more comfortable spending these days because it is free money.

Kim Jung-ran, supermarket worker

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. Nonessential 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,” says 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 clerk, recently splurged on a high-end hiking outfit. “Usually, I would be hesitant, but I feel more comfortable spending these days because it is free money,” says Kim.

The domestic consumption drive is critical for the export-dependent Korean economy. Exports, which account for about 40 percent 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,” says Park Seok-gil, an economist at J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.

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,” says 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.

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

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