Rooting out illegal brokersEleven unlicensed agents who arranged plastic surgery procedures for Chinese tourists in Korea were indicted by prosecutors in the latest crackdown on illicit trade in the country’s booming cosmetic industry, in which the Chinese are the biggest foreign customer base. One Chinese client paid $180,505 to have her breasts augmented - 30 times more than the average rate.
A revision made to the medical law in 2009 allows any agents to cater and draw foreign patients and medical clients to Korea upon simply registering. But illicit trade is rampant in the plastic surgery industry, based in southern Seoul. Authorities estimate that there are over 2,000 unlicensed agents working as middlemen who mostly solicit clients online. They wield significant influence in the cosmetic trade between Chinese and Korean surgeons, persuading them to conduct high-risk operations or complete makeovers and overcharging customers to pocket handsome commissions.
The medical industry has been described as a new soft power generator for growth in Korea. Over 250,000 foreigners received medical treatments last year in Korea. Of them, 56,000 Chinese underwent cosmetic surgery. Such a surge in foreign customers should translate into a boom for the industry. But strangely, more and more clinics are closing down due to financial trouble because illegal traders are the ones profiting from both the practitioners and the patients in this burgeoning business. The influence among illegal brokers has grown so much that clinics and surgeons must appease them in order to draw customers.
Medical accidents have also increased, which prompted the Chinese government to formally ask Korea to address the problem. A group of Chinese clients who were swindled and alleged that their cosmetic procedures in Korea were botched have also embarked on an online campaign to highlight the illicit plastic surgery trade here. As a result, Korea may end up with a tarnished reputation - known as a place where illegal trade is rampant within a “plastic republic.”
Health and law enforcement authorities and the government must take a firm stance against corruption in the medical industry, and hospitals and doctors with connections to unlicensed agents must be punished. Refunding the service tax for plastic surgery is an option. If overseas customers report their medical records for tax refunds, the exact numbers and procedures can easily be traced. Illegal trade must be rooted out in order to promote a safe and healthy medical tourism environment.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 27, Page 34