(CNN) — There was something puzzling about young Western women staying in hostels in Seoul, researcher Min Joo Lee thought.
Unlike their Asian counterparts, whom she saw sneaking into as many sights and shops as possible during their stays in the South Korean capital, these women – mostly in their early twenties – seemed uninterested in the usual tourist trails.
Instead, most of their days they stayed inside their hostel, sleeping or watching Korean TV shows – only venturing out after dark.
They had caught the attention of Lee, who is studying Korean gender and race politics as a postdoctoral fellow at Indiana University in Bloomington, because she was in town to find out what influence the profile growing international Korean pop culture had on tourism.
After visiting eight hostels and interviewing 123 women, mostly from North America and Europe, Lee came to the conclusion 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 offered 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.
South Korean actor Gong Yoo on October 30, 2019 in Seoul.
Han Myung-Gu/WireImage/Getty Images
The appeal of Korean men
The women Lee interviewed were fascinated by Korean men who were portrayed on TV as being in touch with their emotions and ready to embrace their “girlish side”, Lee said.
They viewed Korean men as cultured and romantic while complaining that men from their home country often overlooked their looks and had a one-sided mind.
Grace Thornton, a 25-year-old British gardener, traveled to Seoul in 2021 after watching the K-drama “Crash Landing on You” on Netflix.
She was struck by how the men on the show did not make fun of women or call out women on the street, as happens in her home country.
In his eyes, Korean men are “gentlemen, polite, charming, romantic, magical, chivalrous, respectful”. She said it also helps Korean men dress well and groom themselves.
“(English men in comparison) are half-drunk, holding a beer, holding a dead fish,” she said – a reference to what she said was the prevalence of fishing images in profiles of UK male dating apps.
And the appeal is not entirely on men.
As Thornton says, “In England, I looked very common and sounded like everyone else. In Korea, I was different, exciting, and foreign. People paid 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 increase in the number of female tourists to South Korea.
In 2005, 2.3 million women visited the country – compared to 2.9 million men, according to government data. In 2019 – the last year before the coronavirus wreaked havoc on tourism – nearly 10 million women visited the country, compared to just 6.7 million men.
At the same time, there has been an explosion of couple-centric social media content featuring Korean men with women from overseas.
On YouTube, the hashtag “#Gukjecouple” (“#international couple”) has become a genre comprising 2,500 channels and 34,000 videos, the most popular of which feature a Korean with an American or European partner. Sometimes these videos feature couples joking around, playing on cultural differences, and sometimes they just depict the couples going about their daily lives.
Among the proponents of the genre is Heo Jin-woo, a Seoul-based Korean YouTuber who once ran a channel devoted to videos in which he impersonates the viewer’s boyfriend.
The videos showed him acting like he was on a video call with a lover, asking viewers how their day went or inviting them to dinner at the new Italian restaurant in town. He spoke in a sleepy, soft voice with a slight Korean accent and spiced up his speech with the occasional Korean phrase.
According to Heo, the channel amassed 14,000 subscribers, mostly foreign women in their twenties who were interested in Korean culture, but he shut it down after meeting his girlfriend Harriet, who is from the UK.
The “Jin and Hattie” show.
From Jin and Hattie
Instead, the couple created an “international couple” channel titled “Jin and Hattie.”
These are mostly videos in which they “joke” each other based on misunderstandings and differences in their cultures.
A video, titled “Playing a Jealous Prank on My Korean Boyfriend”, shows Harriet wearing short dresses in front of Heo, who asks her to dress more modestly.
“Don’t forget to wear your couple’s ring,” he said before Harriet told him the joke and they kissed. Comments under the video – mostly from English-speaking female fans – praise Heo’s respect for his wife.
Since its launch in February 2020, the channel has gained 70,000 subscribers every month, according to analytics service Socialblade, and now has 1.7 million subscribers. Although the couple say the channel was never meant to be a business, their channels on various platforms have over 3.5 million subscribers combined.
Hugh Gwon, a YouTube channel management consultant, is one of the original creators of the “international couple” content.
He said creators of couples channels with more than 1 million subscribers can earn 30 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 maintain a blog called “My Korean Husband” which discusses cross-cultural marriage and reflects changing attitudes towards these relationships.
Nichola says the image of Korean men has transformed since she met her husband 10 years ago in Sydney.
Back then, she had grown accustomed to hearing detrimental comments such as peers saying her husband was handsome “for an Asian”.
When she Googled “Korean husband” after their engagement, most of the results were horror stories of Southeast Asian migrant brides married to abusive Korean men. Today’s search yields photos of Korean celebrities and her blog, as well as a Quora link to an anonymous user asking how to find a Korean husband.
She says the best “international couples” chains promote cultural understanding, but warns that some only sell looks and fantasies.
The reality, she says, is that women who are serious about settling down with a Korean husband should recognize that there will be cultural differences to adjust to, such as living in a society known for long working hours and their patriarchal gender norms.
“(At first) you go picnicking on the Han River, and everything is wonderful and you feel like you’re in a K-drama, but then what’s the reality of having a family in Korea?” she says.
“A Temporary Pleasure”
Unfortunately, some women find after they arrive that the men they meet are not as perfect as those depicted on their screens.
Mina, a 20-year-old student from Morocco, 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 described as “rich, respectful, handsome men who protect you,” she said.
But during her parties, she was groped in a bar and solicited by strangers on the street. She felt that some Korean men tended to believe that foreign women were more open to casual sex than local women.
“We are temporary pleasure,” she said, adding, “Men are men, humans look alike everywhere.”
Since then, she has lost the enjoyment of Korean TV shows and no longer wants to date Korean men.
Quandra Moore, a 27-year-old English teacher from Washington, arrived in Seoul in 2017 and searched for a partner through dating apps and at nightclubs. But she too was disappointed.
She encountered racist attitudes – rejected by someone who told her to “go back to Africa” - and discovered that many men only seemed 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 tolerate it,” she said.
It’s a point that Lee, the researcher, echoed, saying that some men felt they could abuse foreign women with impunity because, as foreigners, they were restricted to smaller social circles.
Yet the draw is such that even those with bad experiences are not always discouraged.
Some women who returned home disappointed told Lee that they felt it was their fault that they had not found 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 country,” she said.
“They can’t really let go because they hope that the ideal romantic relationships exist somewhere in the world,” she said.