South Korea's cosmetic surgery craze creates identikit beauty queens
'They all look the same', pageant representative says of South Koreans mad for nips and tucks
Andrew Salmon in Seoul
Is a fad for cosmetic surgery transforming South Korea's beauty queens into the kind of identikit clones previously favoured in North Korea's robotic military parades?
If comments on social news and entertainment website Reddit are any indication, the answer could be "yes". On Wednesday, a Japanese blog published mug shots of 2013's 20 Miss Korea hopefuls, noting their uncanny similarity.
The pictures were reposted under the title: "Korea's plastic surgery mayhem is finally converging on the same face. Here are the miss korea 2013 contestants". The photos, and the issue of South Korean cosmetic surgery, has kicked up a storm across the internet.
According to data compiled by The Economist from the International Society of Cosmetic Plastic Surgeons and the UN, South Koreans undergo more plastic surgery than any other nationality: in 2011, 13 million procedures were performed on a population of just 50 million.
Anyone visiting Seoul's trend-setting Gangnam district - famously sent up by Psy in his world-storming pop video - will be unable to avoid advertisements for the area's aesthetic clinics.
The sector is even earning foreign exchange. With Korean television dramas conquering living rooms across the Asia-Pacific, "cosmetic surgery tourism" is booming. On packaged vacations, Asian tourists converge on Seoul for the kind of nips and tucks sported by their Korean idols.
The thriving industry appears to be the driving force behind the identikit look of 2013's Miss Korea hopefuls.
While some online commentators allege elements of racism - "all Asians look alike" - in the ongoing debate, at least one native Korean beauty industry professional not only agrees but reckons that the look currently seen in local pageants is not particularly Korean.
"You look at the faces of these pageant contestants and they all look the same, you don't know who is who," said Jenny Thorn, who represents the Miss World pageant in Seoul. "A lot of people say Miss Korea is not representing Korea any more." So what aesthetic elements represent typical Korean prettiness?
"I think Korean chins and cheekbones are representative of Korean beauty," Thorn continued, adding that this aesthetic has changed in recent years. "We Koreans tend to have round faces but now we prefer egg-shaped faces," she said.
Cosmetic surgery used to be limited to minor adjustments to noses and eyelids but the new concept of beauty is popularising extreme operations.
"Korea is a society that has undergone a revolution in the last 100 years and so now there are no caste indicators," said Mike Breen, a Seoul-based author. "Billionaires don't look or talk differently to peasants and because of that, there is a huge 'keeping up with the Joneses' mentality."