There was something unnerving about young Western girls staying in youth hostels in Seoul, researcher Min Joo Lee thought.
Unlike their Asian counterparts, whom she saw cramming into as many sights and shops as possible during their stays in the South Korean capital, these women, mostly in their early 20s, seemed uninterested in the usual tourist routes.
Instead, for most of their days they stayed inside their hostel, sleeping or watching Korean TV shows, venturing out only after dark.
They had caught the attention of Lee, who researches Korea’s gender and race politics as a postdoctoral fellow at Indiana University Bloomington, because she was in town to find out what influence the rising international profile of Korean pop culture was having on tourism. .
After visiting eight shelters and interviewing 123 women, mostly from North America and Europe, Lee concluded that many had been drawn to the country by what she calls “the Netflix effect.”
Hit Korean TV shows like “Crash Landing on You” and “Goblin” outsold men with handsome faces and chiseled bodies like their stars Hyun Bin and Gong Yoo. They were offering a glimpse into a world where men were romantic and patient, an antithesis to what women saw as the sex-obsessed dating culture of their home countries.
The attractiveness of Korean men
The women Lee interviewed were fascinated by Korean men appearing on television as if they were in touch with their emotions and willing to embrace their “sissy sides,” Lee said.
They considered Korean men cultured and romantic while complaining that men in their home countries often neglected their appearance and had one-way minds.
Grace Thornton, a 25-year-old gardener from the UK, traveled to Seoul in 2021 after watching the Korean drama “Crash Landing on You” on Netflix.
She was struck by the fact that the men on the show did not taunt or whistle at women in the street, as is the case in her home country.
In her eyes, Korean men are “gentlemanly, polite, charming, romantic, fairy-tale, chivalrous, respectful.” He said that he also helps Korean men dress well and groom themselves.
“(English men by comparison) are half drunk, holding a beer, holding a dead fish,” he said, referring to what he said was the prevalence of fishing images on British male dating app profiles.
And attractiveness isn’t just about men.
As Thornton says, “In England, I’m very ordinary and look and sound just like everyone else. In Korea, I’m different, exciting, and foreign. People pay attention to me. I felt special.”
‘International couples’ and professional boyfriends
The popularity of Korean television shows with global audiences has coincided with a steady rise in the number of female tourists in South Korea.
In 2005, 2.3 million women visited the country, compared to 2.9 million men, according to government data. By 2019, the last year before the coronavirus wreaked havoc on tourism, almost 10 million women visited the country, compared to just 6.7 million men.
At the same time, there has been an explosion in couple-focused social media content featuring Korean men with foreign women.
On YouTube, the hashtag “#Gukjecouple” (“#international couple”) has become a genre spanning 2,500 channels and 34,000 videos, the most popular of which features a Korean man with an American or European partner. Sometimes these videos show couples joking around, playing on cultural differences, and sometimes they simply portray the couples in their everyday lives.
Proponents of the genre include Heo Jin-woo, a Seoul-based Korean YouTuber who once ran a channel dedicated to videos in which he pretended to be the viewer’s boyfriend.
Videos showed him acting like he was on a video call with a lover, asking viewers how their day was or inviting them to dinner at the new Italian restaurant in town. He spoke in soft sleepy tones with a slight Korean accent and punctuated his speech with occasional Korean phrases.
According to Heo, the channel amassed 14,000 followers, mostly foreign women in their twenties who were interested in Korean culture, but he shut it down after he met his girlfriend Harriet, who is from the UK.
Instead, the couple have created an “international couple” channel titled “Jin and Hattie.”
It mainly consists of videos where they “joke” each other based on misunderstandings and differences in their cultures.
One video, titled “Making My Korean Boyfriend Jealous,” shows Harriet wearing short dresses in front of Heo, who asks her to dress more modestly.
“Don’t forget to wear your couple ring,” he says before Harriet tells him the joke and they hug. Comments below the video, mostly from English-speaking fans, praise how respectful Heo is to his now-wife.
Since its launch in February 2020, the channel has gained 70,000 subscribers each month, according to analytics service Socialblade, and now has 1.7 million subscribers. Although the pair say the channel was never intended to be a business, their channels on various platforms have more than 3.5 million subscribers combined.
Hugh Gwon, a consultant specializing in YouTube channel management, is one of the original creators of “international couple” content.
He said creators like Heo and Harriet, who have more than a million subscribers, can earn 30 million to 50 million won ($23,000 to $38,000) for each sponsored video.
But the value of gender goes beyond dollar signs: It’s also about helping couples adjust to cultural differences.
Gwon and his Australian wife Nichola have a blog called “My Korean Husband” that discusses cross-cultural marriage and how attitudes towards such relationships are changing.
Nichola says the image of Korean men has been transformed since she met her husband 10 years ago in Sydney.
Back then, she got used to hearing prejudiced comments, like peers saying her husband was handsome “for an Asian.”
When she Googled “Korean husband” after her engagement, most of the results were horror stories of immigrant wives from Southeast Asia married to abusive Korean men. Today, the search returns images of Korean celebrities and their blog, along with a Quora link to an anonymous user asking how to find a Korean husband.
She says that the best “international dating” channels promote cultural understanding, but warns that some only sell appearances and fantasies.
The reality, she says, is that women serious about settling down with a Korean husband need to recognize that there will be cultural differences to adjust to, such as living in a society known for long work hours and patriarchal gender norms.
“(At first) you go to the Han River for a picnic, and everything is wonderful and you feel like you’re in a K-drama, but what is the reality of having a family in Korea?” she said.
‘A temporary pleasure’
Unfortunately, some women discover after they arrive that the men they meet are not as perfect as the ones on their screens.
Mina, a 20-year-old Moroccan student, said K-pop and Korean TV shows influenced her decision to come to the southern city of Busan in 2021.
The men she saw on television were portrayed as “rich, respectful, good-looking men who protect you,” she said.
But during her nights out, she was groped in a bar and forced to have sex with strangers on the street. She felt that some Korean men tended to believe that foreign women are more open to casual sex than local women.
“We are a temporary pleasure,” he said, adding: “Men are men, humans are the same everywhere.”
Since then, she has stopped enjoying Korean TV shows and no longer wants to date Korean men.
Quandra Moore, a 27-year-old English teacher from Washington, came to Seoul in 2017 and searched for a partner through dating apps and nightclubs. But she was also disappointed.
She encountered racist attitudes, being shunned by someone who told her to “go back to Africa”, and found that many men seemed only interested in sex.
In her experience, Korean men treated foreign women differently. “Why can’t we go to dinner first? It’s so rude. They know Korean women won’t stand for it,” she said.
It’s a point echoed by Lee, the researcher, saying some men felt they could mistreat foreign women with impunity because, as foreigners, they were confined to smaller social circles.
Still, such is the appeal that even those who have bad experiences aren’t always put off.
Some women who flew home disappointed told Lee that they felt it was her fault they didn’t find their ideal man and that they would come back and try harder next time.
“They clearly see that not all Korean men are (perfect), but they just need an alternative to the disappointing dating market in their home countries,” he said.
“They really can’t quit because they hope that the ideal couple relationships exist somewhere in the world,” he said.