Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about. This week, Emmanuel de Klerk from South Africa asks:
Do North Korean people get plastic surgery like South Koreans do? If so, what kind of operations are popular?
Your question about plastic surgery reminded me of the ‘eye exam’ that we used to have in high school, held at an almost random frequency.
Without advance notice, inspectors – who were often teachers that we had not met before, would suddenly come into the classroom to look for students who had double-eyelids. This inspection was ordered by school authorities with the purpose of finding students who had double-eyelid surgery done.
Well, I think, across the ages and in all countries, it is universal human instinct to be more beautiful.
In North Korea, we do not have big cosmetic surgery operations such as the cutting off of part of our jaw bones, an operation which has become quite popular in South Korea. But minor operations such as double-eyelid surgery or semi-permanent make up (tattoo) on the eyebrows and lips are not hard to find. However, nose jobs are a little bit more rare than these.
“It is a universal human instinct to be more beautiful”
From the early 2000s, semi permanent make-up on lips and the eyebrows became very popular in North Korea. I was a high school student then. Like most of the teenagers, my friends and I were concerned about how we looked. Some of my classmates even skipped classes for a few days claiming that they were sick, before coming back looking completely different than before. As the number of students who skipped classes to have cosmetic operations increased, the school had to establish strict rules on plastic surgery.
Taking after my mother, I was born with big eyes with natural double-eyelids – which look a lot like artificially made double-eyelids. In North Korea, artificial double-eyelids are easy to tell from natural ones because after the surgery the eyes look way bigger than before and oftentimes, the double-eyelids are very much thicker than natural ones.
Because plastic surgery is strictly restricted by laws in North Korea, doctors visit homes with their medical devices and conduct cosmetic operation at patients’ homes. Consequently, the outcomes of the operations are not very elaborate, often ending up with an unnatural look and some post-surgery side effects.
Anyways, because my natural double eyelids looked too artificial, I had to explain that there was no surgical scar on my eyes to the inspectors at my school. My classmates also had to confirm that my double-eyelids were natural. When anyone was caught having plastic surgery done there would be negative consequences, such as having to submit a formal letter of apology or doing mandatory labor for a couple of days. Sometimes, students were even asked to donate building materials to school, such as cement or paint for construction.
“To the girls who were not born with double-eyelids, double-eyelid surgery is a little magic granting their wishes to be prettier”
It might sound a little bit off the wall, but the penalties make sense in my country considering the common perception of plastic surgery there as a a symbol of wealth. Bur ironically, double-eyelids operations are not expensive in North Korea. They cost only 2 to 3 dollars, which is equivalent to the value of 1 to 1.5 kilo grams of rice. Of course, that price might be a little bit of a burden to those living from hand to mouth, but it is not an impossible amount of money to save with a little bit of effort and frugality.
To the girls who were not born with double-eyelids, double-eyelid surgery is a little magic granting their wishes to be prettier. Some of my friends who could not afford the surgery tried to make double-eyelids with transparent sticky tapes made in the shape of eyelids. But the stickiness of the tapes did not last long, so the “eyelids” would start falling off and dangling before my friends had even arrived at school.
When it came to the wealthy kids, some of them used get nose jobs. Unlike eyes, nose jobs require a high level of expertise and accordingly, there are not many doctors who could successfully perform the operation in North Korea. At the same time, the price is very expensive. I didn’t have anyone around me who had done the nose job and it wasn’t until I went to Red Youth Guard training that I finally met anyone who had got a nose job – some of the students from the art institute.
Let me explain a little bit about the training of the Red Youth Guard and the art institute.
The Red Youth Guard training is a week-long program that trains fifth graders of middle school, who are usually 16 years old, allowing them to experience military training just like real soldiers. The program includes ball firing, topography training, tactics on how to regain high ground, spear training and martial arts. In a nutshell, the purpose of the program is basically to nurture the students as potential troops so that they can start fighting with guns on their shoulders as soon as a war breaks out.\
“I was always conscious of the somewhat small nose I had inherited from my daddy”
Anyways, there were a number of different schools participating in the Red Youth Guard training, and our class was lucky to receive training with the art institute students. The art institute is a school for students who are talented in arts and also wealthy enough to afford the expensive tuition of art classes. There are some exceptions, but most of the students enter the art school at the middle school or high school age and receive additional art classes on top of their regular curriculum. And when the students graduate from the art institute, which is an equivalent of high school, they start their career as an entertainer, such as vocalist, musician or movie director. Naturally, art institute students tend to be more conscious of their appearance.
At Red Youth Guard training I still remember there were two very pretty girls from the art institute. Rumor had it that they had got their eyes and nose job done. Well, their noses looked perfect in my eyes, too and I must be honest that I was a little bit jealous of them because I had always been conscious of the somewhat small nose I had inherited from my daddy.
In the training camp, the students served meals in rotation just like real soldiers did. When those two pretty girls served meals, my male classmates were literally out of their minds. After the intense boot camp training ,we were extremely hungry and the amount of corn rice that we were served was ridiculously small to satisfy our sharp hunger. What was even worse was that we had to start eating at the word of command and finish eating in a very short space of time. When you could not finish eating in the given time, that was it. You had to stop eating and leave the dining room, no matter what. Nevertheless, my male classmates were so mesmerized by the beauty of the girls, staring at them so long that you’d think they completely forgot their deadly hunger.
Of course the guys could not finish eating spending their precious dining time looking at the two girls. So my girlfriends and I would tease them for following their basic instincts and choosing “eyesight relief” over “appetite relief”. I cannot deny that we were a little bit jealous of the girls… ! Anyhow, my male colleagues seemed to be perfectly happy with their beautiful idols regardless of their hunger or our teasing. Instead, they took their never-satisfied hunger and frustration out on the nasty supervisor who would yell at them, relieving their stress by speaking ill of him when they were together.
“When I fist came to South Korea, the big plastic surgery trend was not that much of a surprise to me.”
When I fist came to South Korea, the big plastic surgery trend was not too much of a surprise to me. In North Korea, people have a good awareness about the modern technologies available for changing or improving specific parts of the body. So even though there were not many plastic surgeons in North Korea, I had already heard about the trend of plastic surgery in more developed nations. Indeed, I read a story once about a female solder who got scalded on her face while trying save the portrait of Kim Il Sung from the scene of a fire. Because there was no plastic surgeon to take care of her wound in North Korea, Kim Jong Il sent her abroad so that she could have a plastic surgery.
What has really surprised me about plastic surgery in South Korea has been the perfection of medical technology, which has made it almost impossible to tell if someone has had plastic surgery. In most cases, the outcome of cosmetic surgery looks perfectly natural without any noticeable scar.
Also, streets full of plastic surgery signs and advertisements has been another surprise to me.: It made me think that most of the good looking girls in South Korea had gone though plastic surgery! It wasn’t until later that I gradually figured out that there are many natural beauties in the South and learned that you can actually make yourself look totally different with just the help of make-up.
These days I am learning many different make-up techniques from my South Korean friends that help make my face look slimmer or cuter. It is a great pleasure to take care of and improve my appearance without any restrictions from outside.
I enjoy and am grateful for my new freedom to glam myself up. I wish this freedom and happiness will be given to my girlfriends in North Korea in the near future.
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Editing and translation by Ashley Cho