Plastic surgery to the rescue for North Korean defectors

Free programme run by South's police and surgeons helps many with scars from work accidents, torture

Dr Hong Jeong Geun using a laser to remove a tattoo from the arm of a North Korean defector at a clinic in Seoul.
Dr Hong Jeong Geun using a laser to remove a tattoo from the arm of a North Korean defector at a clinic in Seoul.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

SEOUL • Nearly 20 years ago, Mrs Lee Geung Ja was working the night shift at a factory in North Korea when an accident with melting plastic left her face scarred and discoloured. Most of her left eyebrow and eyelid were destroyed.

In her own words, she looked like "a monster".

In 2010, she defected to South Korea, where she lived like a creature of the night.

She worked alone cleaning buildings and bathhouses in the wee hours to avoid being stared at.


My biggest fear has been that my son would be ashamed of me when his classmates see my face.

MRS LEE GEUNG JA, 40, whose accident with melting plastic 20 years ago left her face scarred and discoloured and most of her left eyebrow and eyelid destroyed.

Her self-consciousness was made worse by the fact that South Korean society places a huge importance on appearance, particularly for women.

Now Mrs Lee, 40, is getting help she never dreamed of.

A plastic surgeon has volunteered to help her regain some of her old looks - and self-esteem.

It is part of a programme started this year by the police and volunteers from the Korean Association of Plastic Surgeons to help defectors from North Korea who are, literally, scarred by their past.

Since news of the free surgery programme spread, dozens of defectors have signed up, including a man who cannot breathe through his nose after it was smashed in a logging camp accident.

One woman who lost a breast to cancer hoped that reconstructive surgery would make her more comfortable with using a public bathhouse and dating again.

"I often thought of killing myself and my five-year-old son to end my misery," said Mrs Kim Seon Ah.

The 37-year-old wants to erase the cigarette-burn marks on her head and chest inflicted by a Chinese man, the father of her son.

She said he had bought her from human traffickers after she fled North Korea for China in 2003.

"I still have a phobia of men," Mrs Kim said.

Many of the 28,000 defectors living in South Korea carry burdens that make it harder for them to resettle in a capitalist society.

They are often paid less and are treated as untrained and emotionally unstable workers.

Superintendent Kim Kyeong Suk of Yongsan police station, who helps link defectors to plastic surgeons, came up with the idea for the programme after hearing many people from North Korea say they could not find work because of their scars.

She said: "Surprisingly often, you find defectors carrying big ugly scars, like crude stitches crawling like giant centipedes on their stomach, patches of hair missing from their scalp and other signs of torture, or they wear ideological slogans tattooed on their skin."

For South Korean officials, helping defectors adjust to life here could be an experiment in managing possible societal problems if the two Koreas were to reunite.

Mrs Lee said that after her accident, she had no access to medicine, other than to use saline solution on her wounds.

She fled North Korea in 1998 at the height of a catastrophic famine, entering China as an illegal migrant. She was sent home three times, but each time she fled back to China, where she met a man and gave birth to a boy.

After finally making it to South Korea, Mrs Lee was fascinated by a reality television show that featured drastic makeovers through plastic surgery.

"Just watching it gave me comfort," said Mrs Lee, who lives in Gimpo, west of Seoul.

Recently, she made her first visit to Dr Park Sang Hyeon in Seoul, who said she will need multiple operations over many months to regain some of her looks.

Despite the arduous path ahead, she has a modest dream: To attend a parents' meeting at her third-grade son's school for the first time. "My biggest fear has been that my son would be ashamed of me when his classmates see my face," she said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2015, with the headline 'Plastic surgery to the rescue for N. Korean defectors'. Print Edition | Subscribe