Understanding Reconstructive Surgery & Cosmetic Surgery In South Korea

When many of us talk about plastic surgery, we would often think about cosmetic surgery.  Of course, with the hype of K-culture and K-pop, the spotlight is shone on K-pops stars who have undergone cosmetic surgeries to look prettier, slimmer and more beautiful for the big screen. What’s more, cosmetic surgery is undoubtedly a part of South Korean culture and Seoul is being named as the “Capital of Cosmetic Surgery”. However, we must not fail to recognize that cosmetic surgery is only one of the sub-speciality of plastic surgery. The other sub-speciality of plastic surgery is reconstructive surgery.

Many plastic surgeons choose to focus their practice on cosmetic surgery and the terms plastic surgery and cosmetic surgery are often loosely used by laymen, but they are not the same procedures as plastic surgery encompasses BOTH sub-specialities of reconstructive surgery and cosmetic surgery. For example, like patients who suffer from severe burns will need to undergo skin-grafting surgery and this is reconstructive surgery performed by a plastic surgeon. However, procedures such as breast implants, liposuction, blepharoplasty are classed as cosmetic surgeries as these procedures are performed to enhance the facial features and physical appearance of the patient.

We must recognize that plastic surgery also comprise of the sub-speciality of reconstructive surgery which is dedicated to the reconstruction of facial and body defects due to birth disorders, trauma, burns, and disease. Reconstructive surgery is performed to correct dysfunctional areas of the body and is reconstructive in nature. In certain severe cases, if reconstructive surgery is not performed on a patient, it could endanger the health of the patient and the patient may die from not receiving the reconstructive surgery. While many plastic surgeons choose to complete additional training and perform cosmetic surgery as well, the basis of their surgical training remains reconstructive plastic surgery.

I had an in-depth discussion and interview with one of South Korea’s most renowned cosmetic surgeons and the Founder of BK Plastic Surgery Hospital, Dr Kim Byung Gun, and from the interview, I learned a lot about the sub-specialities of plastic surgery and how they are being categorized and classified in South Korea. A copy of our in-depth interview is recorded below.

Interview with Dr Kim Byung Gun

1. What is the difference between cosmetic and plastic surgery?

Answer: The scope of ‘plastic surgery’ is more comprehensive. Plastic surgery refers to surgery that reconstructs facial and body defects. Plastic surgery procedures which correct and reconstruct dysfunctional or damaged areas of the body due to congenital deformity, burns, accidents, and disease are classified as ‘reconstructive surgery’, the surgical procedures with the focus of improving the patient’s physical appearance and beauty is classified as ‘cosmetic surgery’.

In short, plastic surgery is a generic concept which includes reconstructive surgery and cosmetic surgery as sub-specialities and the terms are not interchangeable.

2. Is the training for a plastic surgeon the same as that for a cosmetic surgeon?

Answer: In South Korea, there are currently no residency programs devoted exclusively to cosmetic surgery.

Plastic surgery is a special subject itself, like internal medicine, pediatrics, gynecology or neurosurgery, to quote a few examples. Among doctors who are trained as plastic surgeons, this group of doctors can be divided into two groups: reconstructive surgeons whom primarily perform reconstructive surgeries and those who focus mainly on cosmetic surgeries. There are various cosmetic surgeries which take place in the plastic surgery hospital where plastic surgeons receive their required medical residency and training.

Usually, the doctors referred to as ‘cosmetic surgeons’ in South Korea are not professionally trained in the field of plastic surgery. Any doctors from a different specialty can be a cosmetic surgeon because the service they provide is a treatment rather than a complicated invasive plastic surgical procedure. If these doctors are performing surgeries for cosmetic purpose, that is cosmetic surgery.

Therefore, patients must understand, according to Medical Service Act, as long as South Korean doctors who have obtained their medical doctor’s license, any medical treatment or surgery which they provide and perform is legal. However, if the doctor did not specialize in that specific area or scope of medical study, he or she cannot open a clinic by the name for the corresponding medical field.

More importantly, if I, as a plastic surgeon, perform a neurosurgery, it is not illegal because I am a doctor first before I am a plastic surgeon. Nonetheless, I did not go through the medical residency training for neurosurgery, therefore I cannot say that I know how to perform neurosurgery like a neurosurgeon who had undergone extensive medical residency in neurosurgery, and even if I can perform neurosurgery procedures, I am not permitted to use the term ‘neurosurgery’ in my clinic’s name.

3. Many general physicians have started aesthetic clinics providing aesthetic services such as botox, dermal and hair fillers, non-surgical facelift, anti-aging treatments, skin resurfacing, lasers, light therapies and a variety of minimally invasive body enhancement and body contouring treatments. Is it safe to seek treatments from the aesthetic doctor?

Answer: Although it cannot be said that it is absolutely unsafe, these doctors are not equivalent to professionally trained doctors for the field. Minimally invasive surgical procedures, laser treatments for skin, and body contouring treatments are relatively easy compared to blepharoplasty (double eyelid surgery) or rhinoplasty (nose job). Therefore, general physicians and doctors specializing in other areas can easily provide aesthetic services. However, dermatologists will undoubtedly be more professional and suitable in providing treatments like skin laser and laser skin-resurfacing procedures. Of course, there are general physicians who have acquired the necessary skills and techniques for these treatments garnered from their years’ of experience and practice.

4. What should consumers seeking cosmetic surgeries look for in a physician to perform a cosmetic procedure?

Answer: If the cosmetic procedure is not performed by a professional plastic surgeon, post-operative complications can occur because general physicians may not know how to handle the procedures appropriately and correctly.

First and foremost, consumers opting for cosmetic surgeries should check if the doctor is a regular physician and what his or her specialty is.

Finding out whether the doctor’s specialty is in a line of internal medicine or general surgery is crucial and, if he or she is not a doctor of general surgery, the quality of the surgery as well as post-surgery care may lack substantially, which could put the patient’s health at risk.

5. What is a “board-certified” cosmetic or plastic surgeon?

Answer: According to Public Health Law in South Korea, there is no official concept or term for ‘cosmetic surgeon’. Plastic surgery is a medical science which rectifies and reconstructs the body. As it is a medical speciality which reconstructs the body externally by using body tissues, plastic surgeons receive extensive training for reconstructive and cosmetic surgeries during their medical residency. So questions asking whether the doctor has medical license for his or her specialty is generally the same as asking if the doctor is a professional plastic surgeon or not.

In South Korea, there is no official professional qualification for a ‘cosmetic surgeon’. As such, the Korean Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery is an organization made up of general physicians, even ophthalmologists, gynaecologists, and other professional doctors who are not trained in plastic surgery but have decided to work in the field of cosmetic surgery.

6. The American Board of Cosmetic Surgery is the only certifying board devoted to exam a surgeon’s skill in cosmetic surgery for the face and the body. It is an independent sub-specialty board which examines and certifies physicians in general, facial and dermatological cosmetic surgery. Do you have the same certification process in South Korea?

Answer: The South Korean process for examining and certifying plastic surgeon is different from that of America. As I have said, South Korea has no special certificate or license for a cosmetic surgeon.

7. What is the average age of people receiving cosmetic surgery?

Answer: There are no fixed age groups but people in their 20s and 30s are the majority seeking cosmetic surgeries these days. We are also seeing increasing numbers of patients who are in their 50s seeking for cosmetic surgical procedures.

8. Why did you choose to become a cosmetic surgeon?

Answer: I like performing actual surgical work which requires me to move around and use my hands rather than a general physician “who simply diagnose and pens out prescriptions.” Ever since I was young, I excelled in art and sculpture and this made me realize that I could be a good plastic surgeon and of course, cosmetic surgery is what I do best. I always think of it as my calling.

9. There are many cases of botch jobs carried out by unqualified cosmetic surgeons. How should consumers protect themselves against receiving botch jobs?

Answer: Since medical science is not fully explored 100%, there is always possibility for unforeseen circumstances. However, the patient should thoroughly check if the medical credentials of the cosmetic surgeon and if he or she is authorized by The Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare to perform plastic surgeries so as to reduce the risk of botched jobs.

10. If a consumer receives a botched job, is there any way he or she can file a complaint or medical suit against the physician?

Answer: If the doctor admits to malpractice and that he or she has caused serious health damage to the patient due to their negligence, the patient can and should file for a medical suit against the doctor.

Although the interview is short, it is extremely insightful as Dr Kim has pointed out many salient areas which are crucial when someone from overseas is deciding to opt for a cosmetic surgery procedure in South Korea. It is very critical and important to research carefully, check the credentials of the South Korean plastic surgeon and if they are able to communicate comprehensively in the language which you speak on the process and type of cosmetic procedure they are going to perform on you.

There are many “cosmetic surgeons” in South Korea who are not fluent in English or Mandarin and you will need to engage a translator to see them and to fully understand the type of cosmetic surgery which you will be going through, not to mention the post-surgery care and help which you will require. BK Plastic Surgery Hospital has many consultants who are conversant in English and Mandarin and you will absolutely have no problems in understanding or communicating with the plastic surgeons. Dr Kim himself is fluent in English, Korean and Mandarin. What’s more, I have heard that he has recently received his Singapore citizenship and is also the owner of the famed and prominent BK Medical Group Aesthetic Clinic, situated at Novena Medical Centre in Singapore.

If you are intending on going to South Korea for a cosmetic surgery procedure, it is best to have a video conference or a face-to-face consult with the cosmetic surgeon before deciding on the right plastic surgery hospital. You must feel very comfortable with your surgeon, be able to communicate with the hospital staff and also learn how to take care of yourself post-surgery so that you will look radiant, glowing and beautiful after the cosmetic surgeries.

BK Plastic Surgery Hospital is conveniently located at Gangnam-gu, Seoul and located just beside the Sinsa Train Station. The hospital building is very prominent and you can also get there by a cab in 15 minutes from Myeon-dong area. Here is the picture of the hospital building.

Here is a map of how to go to BK Plastic Surgery Hospital from Incheon Airport, Seoul.


For further media enquiries, kindly do not hesitate to contact BK Plastic Surgery Hospital directly. You can visit their comprehensive website anytime at


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