South Korea's appearance of success

By Daniele Pestilli on October 3, 2015
South Korea's appearance obsessed society is influencing shoppers throughout East Asia. Image credits: Moon Kyung-min

In recent years, South Korea has become synonymous with K-pop, fashion, TV dramas and aesthetics. From the post-war impoverished country of 1950s, the peninsula's stellar rise in the global economic, technological and educational sectors is unprecedented in history. Such a recovery was not deemed possible, and was later coined the “Miracle on the Han River.” Within a single generation, Korea bootstrapped itself into becoming one of the wealthiest nations in the world.

This “miracle” does not appear to be over. The phenomenon is called Hallyu – or Korean Wave – and alludes to the staggering popularity South Korea has gained in the past two decades which has swept across East Asia. The country has been aggressively promoting its history through dramas and movies, as well as its cuisine through the many restaurants, TV shows and more recently also YouTube videos known as meok-bang (eating room) where people record themselves eating unreasonable amounts of food for several hours. It has also been leading massively successful marketing campaigns which link well-known actors and pop-culture artists to fashion brands and cosmetic companies. The peninsula has somehow become the envy of many East and Southeast Asians.

Chinese tourists shopping for Korean cosmetics.
Chinese tourists shopping for Korean cosmetics. Image credits: Moon Kyung-min

A recent article by the Chinese CCTV News reads, “Chinese women used to favor cosmetics from France or Japan. But now more and more of them are looking to South Korea for beauty products.” Lyu Yi, a university student explains how Korea's cosmetics offer a softer solution that befits the East Asian complexion compared to “stronger” Western cosmetics. As an aside, she also mentions the lower price-tag.

According to the same article, the Korean International Trade Association released data showing that Chinese consumers purchasing Korean cosmetics has seen as 250% increase in the first seven months this year, totaling $370 million in sales. This has made South Korea “the second largest cosmetic supplier to China, only after France.”

Moon Kyung-min, brand manager of a South Korean beauty brand and employee at LG H&H (Household & Health care) says that their top customers are mainland Chinese, followed by Hong Kongers and Taiwanese. “They come to Korea exclusively to shop and spend more than $1000 in doing so. In their shopping list, cosmetics are their #1 category.” According to travel retail reports, she said, more than 30% of revenue is made via cosmetics and this percentage is even greater for the non duty-free market.

Buying online is another big market. “There are many online business-to-consumer channels such as Tmall, consumer-to-consumer sites such as Taobao, WeChat, and also direct online purchases from Korea through Tmall global.” She also mentions the large market in China of fake cosmetics that mimic Korean brands.

Ms. Moon tells the East Asia Gazette that Korean cosmetics are doing well particularly because they are extremely trend-sensitive. Since the brands are supported by their own R&D (research & development) teams, making changes to a product can be done rapidly and efficiently.

New products with innovative concepts, textures or colors launch almost every week. We are so fast, we can read customers' needs and make it possible for them to use the cosmetics right away. We also suggest new trends.

For Chinese buyers, the Hallyu wave is so compelling due to Korean pop-culture that they do not even put in question how high-quality the products may be. Prices range from the affordable but extremely trendy products of The Face Shop to super prestigious creams, such as “The History of Whoo”, which costs approximately $700.

When we asked Ms. Moon about some of the more French-sounding products, like Etude House or Laneige she assured us that “consumers know these are Korean.”

The fad has also been recognized by Elle magazine. A piece entitled “SoKo Secrets: 10 Steps to Flawless Skin” explains Charlotte Cho's skincare-first philosophy. “You'd be hard-pressed to come across a Korean woman who doesn't have flawless, hauntingly beautiful skin,” Elle's article opens. “Ever wondered why? It's because Koreans tend to view caring for their complexion as the ultimate investment, worthy of not only their money, but even more so their time.” Charlotte not only runs a popular cosmetics company but is also about to release a book in November this year entitled, The Little Book of Skin Care: Korean Beauty Secrets for Healthy, Glowing Skin. More than a month prior to its release, the book is already an #1 bestseller by the number of pre-orders.

Won Bin posing for The Face Shop
Korean actor Won Bin posing in an ad for The Face Shop.

Korean men are also becoming increasingly metrosexual – something entirely foreign to Korea's homogeneous and conservative culture until very recently. An article published in the Korea Herald entitled “Cosmetics brands to target men” explains that the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety revealed that the male cosmetics industry has grown 62.8% in the past five years totaling approximately $1,030 million in 2014. On average, Korean men in their 20s are using 13 cosmetic products a month. The gender equalization is as true for cosmetics as it is for equality in the household. Reuters writes that Korean men are increasingly taking up cooking in a culture where housework is a duty historically relegated to women. While a 2014 survey on housework by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that South Korean men came rock bottom, TV shows promoting the appeal of a man or husband who can cook is prodding more males to topple this gender-role by assuming a larger role in the kitchen.

The question remains, could all this be symptomatic of a happiness that is truly skin-deep?

On Al Jazeera's news program, 101 East, Drew Ambrose investigates whether the fanatic push to use food to promote its culture is not a consequence of some other deep-seated unhappiness.

In a country obsessed with appearance, a new kind of model – “Plus Size” models – are also entering the stage to promote a healthier perception of the self. The movement, spearheaded by 28-year-old Kim Ji-yang, seeks to help women accept themselves no matter their size or external appearance. Kim's overarching mission is to remind people that

Beauty is not about whether a person is fat or not. It’s about having the confidence to know you are beautiful the way you are.

Her plus size fashion culture magazine, aptly named 66100 (66 being an XL for women, 100 being XL for men in Korea) has received a favorable response and is gaining wider readership.

While power and beauty are recurring themes in human history, excesses in either come at a cost.

The obsession to look perfect is all the rage now and is boosting tourism to Korea. Yet as professor at the University of Chicago, Bruce Cumings wrote in his distinguished book Korea's Place in the Sun regarding the Miracle on the Han River, “Koreans in the South have worked their fingers to the bone to create the industrial country that we now see.” With its newfound success of appearances, Korean society as a whole may eventually pay the final price for such an image-driven consumerist environment.