It is 8 pm on a school day and Yonsuh Goh (12) is wide awake walking on the treadmill with her torso wrapped around with leather straps. The 'posture-fix belt' hung from the ceiling is supposed to extend Yonsuh's spine forcing her to keep a straight posture and eventually support her to grow taller. "I think if you're tall, you can get pride in yourself. But if you're small, other kids always call you names," she says gasping for air as she looked up from the book she was reading while walking at the same time.
Yonsuh's mother, Kwon Young-Joo, drives her to Kiness, a growth clinic in the southern district of Seoul, for the two-hour session three times a week. Kwon patiently sits by watching her daughter move down from the treadmill to join other kids on the yoga mats where personal trainers give instructions to work out their leg muscles with stretch belts. "Living in Korean society, it's all about looks," Kwon says. "So as a parent I'm doing everything I can right now so that she won't grow up to be bitter… just in case she ends up being too short."
At another Hamsoa Clinic in Seoul, doctors offer both western and traditional Asian medical treatments to boost children's height. The clinic's program can predict how tall a child might grow after several hours of examination which includes x-rays, blood tests, and hair sample analysis.
"Actually my dad wants me to grow more tall, because this is my only chance to grow," says Esther (9) shyly while waiting for a blood test. Her older brother Paul (11) proudly boasts that his dream is to be six feet tall. Their mother is about to enroll them into a systematic program that costs $2,500 for 6 months of growth hormone shots. With herbal medicine treatment added to the package, the price can rack up to around $21,000. It also includes massage sessions and acupuncture, but the growth hormone shots are the most effective which makes it a mandatory option to the total package, according to the Hamsoa Clinic.
Because the time span to grow is limited, Doctor Shin Dong-Gil at Hamsoa Clinic says the parents who can afford the financial costs feel obligated at least to have their children checked out. "Korean parents are very competitive. They're always worried that if not tall enough, their kids won't find a good husband or wife, and even suffer discrimination in the workforce," says Doctor Shin Dong-Gil at Hamsoa Clinic. "These parents see height as a direct connection to their children's future potential."
That fear for discrimination has triggered a sudden spurt of successful growth-related businesses like these private clinics, growth vitamins, and even special running shoes that stimulate growth hormones. At the fashion district of Myongdong in central Seoul, men's shoe boutiques feature 'magic shoes' that have hidden soles to make men look more than two-and-a-half inches taller Local media reports that even North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il is a loyal consumer of these height boosting shoes.
The social craze to be tall partly comes from Koreans' tendency to fit into a group and to follow the trend, explains Whang Sang-Min, professor of psychology at Yonsei University. "In the last ten to twenty years, Korean people have been consuming nutritious food compared to the past. With the social average height getting taller, parents fear that their children might fall out of the boundary; the tall people."
But for today's Korean teenagers under tremendous academic pressure, Dr. Kim Yang-Soo says it is a challenging environment for them to grow up to the average height. Compared to students in the U.S., or Japan, Korean kids spend a much longer 50-hour a week of studying, but with very limited hours of physical exercises. "Almost all of the elementary school kids who work out at this clinic go to bed after midnight. They take private tutoring lessons and go to after-school academies until ten or eleven p.m. after this." So in fact the best way to grow tall, according to Dr. Kim, is "to exercise on a regular basis, get plenty of sleep, don't be stressed, and just be happy."
Danbee Lee and Monica Suk contributed to this article.