South Korea Cultivates a New Industry

South Korea, a country that won its international and industrial spurs by building dams and ships and cars and consumer electronics, by slinging steel and cement across the planet, is turning its eyes in a new direction.

Anti-aging. And it's not funny. That is because today, as demographers have pointed out with growing alarm, South Korea has the world's fastest-aging population, which Global Brief, a publication of Canada's Glendon School of Public and International Affairs, says "is unprecedented in human history."

Accordingly, its anti-aging segment has been growing at a 10.1 percent annual rate, with a market amounting to W11.9 trillion (US$10.4 billion), with cosmetics leading growth at a 75 percent market share, medical and services accounting for 18 percent and 7 percent respectively and which could grow to 10 times its current size," according to a new report by the Samsung Economic Research Institute.

Beyond the sudden presence of a new growth industry, aging has deep implications for a country whose youthful work force played a major role in catapulting it to the world's 15th biggest market by nominal GDP and 12th by purchasing power parity. How that will play itself out as the country ages remains deep and disturbing question.

Its formerly dynamic work force is likely to slow markedly. South Korea has one of the world's lowest total fertility rates, at 1.2 per woman of childbearing age in 2010, although it is believed to have risen slightly as the government makes intensive efforts to try to get Koreans to have babies. From a population profile that resembled a pyramid (with many younger individuals and few older individuals) in 1990, according to Global Brief, "the profile is now diamond-shaped (with a large middle-aged population). In another couple of decades, the country's population will be an inverse pyramid: few young people and many older ones."

By 2050, according to Global Brief, "the median age of the population of Korea is projected to be 57 years, making it the most elderly nation in the world." The share for people 65 and over has already risen from 7.2 percent in 2000 to 10.9 percent in 2010. The elderly share of the population is expected to surge to 15.7 percent by 2020.

South Korea appears to be approaching the problem of aging in the same way as it has approached many other problems: with a total commitment to solving it. The report by SERI thus expects anti-aging products to become a major growth driver for the South Korean economy. It also expects that through enhancement of the Korean national brand, it can go after export markets, as it has with cars and electronics.

The industry, according to the eight-page research document, written by Kang Chan-Koo, Chun Sang-In and Ahn Shin-Hyun, "has great potential to grow into a key industry through institutional cooperation and R&D investment. The export environment can be improved through enhancement of Korea's nation brand and overseas public relations activities."

Korea looks to be taking its cues from France's "Cosmetic Valley," a hub composed of six universities, 200 research laboratories, 550 companies and 7,780 researchers working on beautifying people and dressing them up to look younger.

SERI is calling for a program to create a nationwide research institute to systematically conduct basic research on overall physical anti-aging.

Basic aging research, including studies on the mechanisms of aging and the genetics of longevity, should be taken up at the government level, as they have high costs over a long period of time, the report says, pointing out that the United States has established the National Institute on Aging as part of the National Institute of Health, leading the way on aging research. In Japan, which currently has the world's oldest population, the National Institute for Longevity Science has played a central role in geriatric disease research as well as in related policy research.

Although anti-aging in the academic world is usually associated with technologies that can delay the aging process, and the medical world uses it in diagnosing and treating geriatric diseases, this study focuses on products and businesses purporting to "delay physical aging, or ameliorate and manage the symptoms of aging."

As might be expected, cosmetics and medical beauty services are leading the anti-aging industry, with skin care is an obvious choice to tackle compared to other anti-aging treatments. South Korea's current social atmosphere, perhaps more than any other country in Asia, judges people's health and age by skin appearance. Patents related to skin aging and cosmetic products accounted for 50-80 percent of all anti-aging-related patent applications filed over the past 10 years.

"Along with aging, the cohort of 'active seniors' investing in health and youth is emerging as a key consumer group," according to the SERI research. "A leading example is the rapid increase in visits to the dermatologist for the 50-plus generation. A greater emphasis on a more sophisticated and youthful appearance is also prevailing in the culture, to such an extent that appearance is being conflated with ability. There has, for example, been massive growth in the number of men who lavish money on fashion and beauty care, the so-called "grooming tribe."

Remote life care consulting, smartphone beauty apps and smartphone-linked skin diagnostic devices are some of the new products coming online, the report says. "Omnidirectional bio-tech" and medical technology innovations like stem cells, longevity genes and brain science are also contributing to the anti-aging industry, flooding the market with stem-cell activating cosmetic products, gene-activated cosmetics and peptide-based skin care products.

Dermatology is expanding from treatment of skin diseases to anti-aging skin care as new technologies like Botox, filler procedures, micro-needles, laser treatments and ablative modalities have been developed to attenuate aging's symptoms, the report notes. "With anti-aging care becoming a key source of revenues for dermatologists, specialized business models like three-month courses, life consulting and membership schemes, all of which are distinct from existing hospitals and clinics, are growing rapidly." Franchise skin care shops and luxury spas are proliferating.