Insights and Analysis

Flawless: Lessons from the Capital of K-Beauty

May 17, 2023

By John Rieger and Tracie Yang

Seoul’s stylish Gangnam District, where the pursuit of perfect beauty draws an international clientele to “Plastic Surgery Street.” (Photo: Kellerna – Own Work / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Part of the global Korean cultural wave known as Hallyu, the Korean beauty industry—K-beauty—has captured imaginations around the world. K-Pop stars have become the ambassadors for a particularly Korean vision of flawless beauty. Exports of Korean skincare and makeup products now exceed Korean smartphone exports. Seoul is the cosmetic surgery capital of the world, studied by visiting surgeons from the United States and Brazil.

But there is a darker side to this explosion of Korean soft power: complex questions about a system in which chasing and achieving the reigning standard of beauty becomes an inescapable social norm and a gatekeeper for personal and professional success.

Joining us today to talk about the Korean beauty industry is Elise Hu, NPR host-at-large and the host of TED Talks Daily. She’s the author of the new book Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital. Inspired by her four years as NPR’s first bureau chief in Seoul, the book a deeply reported, and deeply reflective, account of the sometimes amazing, and sometimes disturbing, Korean beauty industry.

If you’d like to hear more, we invite you to join The Asia Foundation on Thursday, June 1, from six to eight p.m., at DPR Construction in San Francisco, as we host Elise Hu and our own senior director for Women’s Empowerment Jane Sloane for a conversation moderated by KQED’s Mina Kim. You can learn more about this event here.

Related locations: Korea


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