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The swelling above his eyes has subsided. You can now see an eyelid crease above his lash lines, beginning at the inner corner of the eye and ending above the outer edge. Hojung Yu gazes up at the autumn sun.

He looks friendly, just as he always wanted. A student ready to enter the working world. He will finish his master's degree in service management at Kyung Hee University in December and then compete for jobs. Until then, he wants to be flawless. "They say that it takes a year to adjust the image," Yu says. By image, he means it will take that long until the eyelid crease looks completely natural. Until nobody can tell whether he was born with wide, open look – or if he had the helping hand of a surgeon and his scalpel.

In Seoul, everything seems bigger, better and more elegant – and Hojung Yu wants to keep up. © Vanessa Vu für ZEIT ONLINE

The double eyelid surgery is among the most popular cosmetic surgery operations worldwide. And in South Korea, the decision to make the step seems to be taken about as lightly as piercing one's ears. According to estimates by the country's statistics office, every 10th person in South Korea undergoes cosmetic surgery at some point in their lives, with that number jumping to one-in-three for women in their twenties. Artificial eyelid creases are the least invasive entry into the world of surgical self-improvement. The technique has been introduced by a U.S. military doctor during the Korean War in the 1950s. He wanted to give the Korean women of American soldiers "occidental" facial features. The body that has been perceived as "oriental" or foreign and hostile was to be westernized. Or, as some would say, domesticated.

Yu isn't aware of this history. He has his own explanation.

Behind him glass buildings surround the glass Lotte Tower, with its 555-meter it is considered the fifth highest building in the world. Young couples walk along smooth, paved walkways, some carry shopping bags from boutiques while others push high-tech strollers. Children are playing on perfectly groomed grass, no one is shouting, only murmuring and giggling. No trainers are worn down and not a single hair is out of place. No woman is bare faced.

If you had to imagine what the civilization of tomorrow might look like, this would be a good starting point.

Everything has its place in Seoul, is bigger, better and more elegant – and Yu wants to keep up. In South Korea, he says, it is really hard to get a job, especially in major enterprises like Samsung or Hyundai. Each and every detail could be decisive in the application process, and appearance is one of them. Yu, though, has heard throughout his life that he looks scary, angry or mean, and that this impression is because of the narrow shape of his eyes. Because of his missing eyelid creases. Even his professor has said so once.

So, he says, "it was an easy decision". Yu went to Gangnam, to the city center also known for being the world’s epicenter of cosmetic surgery. It is home to 496 clinics, over a third of the countrywide total of 1,469.

These days, it's difficult to imagine that Gangnam was essentially a wasteland until the early 1970s. Before that, the area north of the Han River, Gangbuk, was the cultural and economic heart of Seoul, but because the population grew so quickly after the war, the government earmarked the farmland south of the river, Gangnam, for development. The first modern apartment complexes went up along streets laid out in a grid system and with the 1988 Olympics the rest was done. All companies with any kind of aspirations opened up a branch in the district.

Today people say, if you made it, you live and work in Gangnam. In the subway stations, almost all the illuminated advertising posters are for plastic surgery clinics. The ad for TJ Plastic Surgery clinic shows a picture of a young, doe-eyed woman posing next to cherry blossoms: "Beauty in full bloom." The posters for the Ilumi, Braun and Jewelry clinic likewise use images showing female faces with large, round eyes with double eyelids along with small, pointy chins – the so-called V-line. If there is an entire body on display, it is usually in profile, with ample breasts, a petite waist and rounded bottom – the S-line.

Inside the Apgujeong subway station © Vanessa Vu für ZEIT ONLINE

Up above, the glitzy skyscrapers are lined up one after the other along the multi-lane street Dosan-daero. Banks, hotels and offices tend to occupy the upper floors, on the ground floor: pharmacies, cafés, bakeries called Paris Baguette and drugstores playing Korean pop.

Every few minutes, people wander past with compresses on their faces or bandages on their eyelids. One woman daubs blood from over her eyes the way others might wipe sweat from their brow. A man uses his smartphone to take a closer look at his swathed nose.

Floor 15 of ID Hospital is decorated in marble and pale pink, the soft strains of lounge music occasionally interrupted by the drone of the coffeemaker. Like all large clinics in Seoul, ID Hospital claims to be the number one when it comes to art of perfecting its patients' external appearances. Outside the clinic's broad windows, meanwhile, buildings are being torn down and rebuilt.

Whatever isn't yet beautiful here will be made beautiful.

In the 16-floor ID Hospital, you can get whatever procedure you want. © Vanessa Vu für ZEIT ONLINE

"I wanted the best clinic," says a woman waiting for her appointment in a cream-hued armchair. Her name is Ann Rithmyxay and she has traveled all the way from the U.S. for her upcoming operation, a present to herself for her 53rd birthday. Ten years ago, Rithmyxay says, she began suffering from depression and gained weight from the medication. Her face grew puffy, she says, and then started to sag as she aged.

She says she scrolled through Instagram looking at before-and-after photos from Korea and thought: "What if?" She would read testimonials from patients, closed the app and opened it again. Finally, after two years, she says, "I found the courage." Rithmyxay booked a facelift, a flight and a hotel for her two-and-a-half-week trip, her first time in Seoul.