Eye of the beholder

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 March, 2005, 12:00am

South Korea's presidential couple looks much younger these days. President Roh Moo-hyun and First Lady Kwon Yang-sook both had eye surgery late last month, to 'remove fat on their eyelids to keep them from covering their eyelashes'.

At least that is the version emanating from the presidential office. As a result, both now have the 'double eyelids' that make their eyes appear wider and deeper. This is also the kind of surgery that many Asians have to look more western. It is no wonder, therefore, that many Koreans think the couple has really had cosmetic surgery, even though the presidential office says otherwise.

Most television viewers agree that Mr Roh looks much better and, more importantly, it gives his face a 'softer' tone. That must be an important change for a president who has been known for his aggressive, confrontational style. In fact, the surgery comes at a time when he has promised a more conciliatory governing style.

Whatever the reason for the operation, it is currently very fashionable for South Korean politicians to have plastic surgery, skin-care or hair-loss treatment. That fad can be found in almost all democratic societies, with elections requiring mass appeal - but South Korea's case is rather extreme. With the political community as a whole becoming younger as a result of sweeping changes in every sector of society, South Korean politicians have a clear reason to try to look younger. In last April's parliamentary election, so many new faces were elected (63 per cent) that two-term or three-term legislators are now regarded as senior politicians. Legislators race to present fresh ideas and platforms which appeal to young people - an increasingly powerful group in South Korean society.

They also have to present to the public a young-looking face with few wrinkles and clean skin. Hair loss can be a liability. For that reason, a number of national lawmakers have undergone treatment or cosmetic surgery. They have had dark spots removed from their faces, or undergone whitening procedures. Some have also had laser eye surgery so they no longer have to wear glasses. Others dye their hair.

But a new look does not necessarily equate to new thinking. Despite these cosmetic changes, the parliament is still mired in hatred-ridden confrontation and conflict. In one recent session, ruling and opposition lawmakers launched vicious verbal attacks, while throwing their name tags and water glasses at one other, all because of differences of opinion. This violence was carried out by these nicer- and younger-looking lawmakers. Clearly, the changes are only superficial, and the old political style remains with us.