How S. Korea's Plastic Surgeons Are Helping Scarred N. Korean Defectors : Parallels Assimilating into South Korean society is rarely easy for North Korean defectors. Top plastic surgeons are volunteering their services to help minimize the scars they bear from painful, abusive pasts.
NPR logo

How S. Korea's Plastic Surgeons Are Helping Scarred N. Korean Defectors

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/472931436/473416768" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
How S. Korea's Plastic Surgeons Are Helping Scarred N. Korean Defectors

How S. Korea's Plastic Surgeons Are Helping Scarred N. Korean Defectors

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/472931436/473416768" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The plastic surgery capital of the world is Seoul, South Korea. More cosmetic procedures are performed there per capita than any other place on the planet. Patients usually go under the knife to upgrade their looks, but lately the country's plastic surgery prowess is being used for social good. NPR's Elise Hu explains.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Gangnam is Seoul's Beverly Hills, at least when it comes to plastic surgery clinics. Here you can find 500 cosmetic surgery centers within a single square mile, so many clinics that they're often stacked on top of one another in multistory buildings.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking Korean).

HU: The Metro Plastic Surgery Clinic is on the 10th floor of one such megaplex. The chief surgeon, Dr. Hong Jung Geun, is about to remove a long scar that bisects a patient's stomach.

HONG JUNG GEUN: I'll do my best.

HU: In the operating room, the instruments come out, and as he does most days of the week, Dr. Hong begins nipping and tucking.

HONG: (Speaking Korean).

HU: But today's surgery is unique. The patient is paying nothing for the procedure. She's a North Korean defector who's going under the knife as part of a pro bono program. It pairs Seoul's top surgeons with defectors who want to remove the literal scars of their past lives.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Speaking Korean).

HU: Kim Kyeong-suk, a police captain in Seoul, started the program through her work with resettling those from the North.

KIM KYEONG-SUK: (Through interpreter) When you're at the security department, you have to manage and care for North Korean defectors and make sure they're protected.

HU: She found that many former North Koreans bore scars from abuse or accidents that happened while living in or escaping the North. Those scars can make assimilation or finding work even tougher because South Korea is a place where appearance really matters. Job applications must come with photos. Subway stations are fitted with full-length mirrors for primping. High school students commonly get nose or eye jobs as graduation presents.

It's hard enough to fit in as a South Korean. For the North Koreans who came here, distracting scars can be automatically disqualifying, so Kim teamed up with Seoul's plastic surgeons who wanted to donate their talent and time.

KIM: (Through interpreter) We would help them get rid of tattoos, burn marks, scars or any sort of abnormal parts of their body. Maybe they have six fingers, for example.

HU: Joo Eunjin was the first patient to get procedures as part of the program. She met with my translator and me in a coffee shop in Northern Seoul to share her story, alternating between Mandarin Chinese and Korean.

JOO EUNJIN: (Foreign language spoken).

HU: "At the height of the North Korean famine in the mid-1990s," she tells us, "a human trafficking gang lured me onto a train then across the border to China." The traffickers sold her to a Chinese farmer. She was 16 years old.

JOO: (Foreign language spoken).

HU: "I tried to escape again and again," she says. "Every time I tried to escape, the Chinese man got really angry. He would beat me up and burn my chest with cigarettes and the top of my head."

JOO: (Foreign language spoken).

HU: She parts her hair at the center to show the place where cigarretes had burned her scalp. Eventually escaping to the South, Joo Eunjin was the first patient two years ago to get a free surgery through the program. Doctors gave her a hair transplant to cover the bald spot on her head and, through multiple surgeries, gradually removed the burn marks from her chest. Now Joo can go unnoticed in South Korean society where sticking out stinks.

JOO: (Foreign language spoken).

HU: "I'm thankful that after the surgery I'm able to walk around confidently," she says. "But more important than the surgery was the love I got from the police officers. In China, I was always scared of the police. Here, it was the police who gave me love."

Today the program has helped two dozen defectors. Some 40 more are on waiting lists. All 28,000 North Korean defectors who live here in the South are eligible to apply. Captain Kim...

KIM: (Through interpreter) I want to show that defectors have resettled into South Korea well, and they've been cared for warmly.

HU: Cosmetic fixes as a show of caring. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.