'The Netflix effect': Why Western women are heading to South Korea in search of love
There was something puzzling about the young Western women staying at the youth hostels in Seoul, thought researcher Min Joo Lee.
Unlike their Asian counterparts, who she saw squeezing in 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 trails.
Instead, for most of their days they would remain inside their hostel, sleeping or watching Korean TV shows – venturing out only after dark.
They had come to the attention of Lee, who researches Korea's gender and race politics as a post-doctoral 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 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 television shows like "Crash Landing on You" and "Goblin," were selling more than men with beautiful faces and chiselled 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 the women saw as the sex-obsessed dating culture of their home countries.
The appeal of Korean men
The women Lee interviewed were fascinated with Korean men who were portrayed on TV as being in touch with their emotions and willing to embrace their "effeminate sides," Lee said.
They considered Korean men cultured and romantic while complaining that men in their home countries often neglected their appearances and had one-track minds.
Grace Thornton, a 25-year-old gardener from the United Kingdom, travelled to Seoul in 2021 after watching K-drama "Crash Landing on You" on Netflix.
She was struck by how men in the show did not jeer at or catcall women on the street, as happens in her home country.
In her eyes, Korean men are "gentlemen, polite, charming, romantic, fairy tale-like, chivalrous, respectful." She said it also helps that 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 pictures in British male dating app profiles.
And the appeal is not entirely about the men.
As Thornton puts it: "In England, I'm very common looking and sound the same as 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 increase in the number of women tourists to 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 played havoc with tourism – nearly 10 million women visited the country, compared to just 6.7 million men.
At the same time, there has been an explosion in social media content centred on couples featuring Korean men with women from abroad.
On YouTube, the hashtag "#Gukjecouple" ("#international couple") has become a genre covering 2,500 channels and 34,000 videos, the most popular of which feature a Korean man with an American or European partner. Sometimes these videos feature couples pranking each other, playing on cultural differences, and sometimes they simply portray the couples going about their everyday lives.
Among the proponents of the genre is Heo Jin-woo, a Korean YouTuber based in Seoul who once ran a channel devoted to videos in which he pretends to be the viewer's boyfriend.
The videos featured him acting as if he were 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 would speak in sleepy, soft tones with a slight Korean accent and pepper his speech with occasional Korean phrases.
According to Heo, the channel amassed 14,000 followers, mostly foreign women in their '20s who were interested in Korean culture, but he shut it down after meeting his girlfriend Harriet, who is from the UK.
Instead, the pair have created an "international couple" channel titled "Jin and Hattie."
It mainly consists of videos in which they "prank" each other based on misunderstandings and differences in their cultures.
One video, titled "Making my Korean boyfriend jealous prank," features 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 lets him in on the joke and they embrace. The comments beneath the video – mostly from English speaking female 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 analysis service Socialblade, and now has 1.7 million subscribers. Though the couple says the channel was never meant 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 between 30 to 50 million won ($23,000 to $38,000) for each sponsored video.
But the genre's worth goes beyond the dollar signs – it is also about helping couples adjust to cultural differences.
Gwon and his Australian wife Nichola run a blog called "My Korean Husband" that discusses intercultural marriage and reflects how attitudes to such relationships are changing.
Nichola says the image of Korean men has transformed since she met her husband 10 years ago in Sydney.
Back then, she grew used to hearing prejudiced comments such as peers saying that her husband was good-looking "for an Asian."
When she Googled "Korean husband" after their engagement, most results were horror stories of southeast Asian migrant wives married to abusive Korean men. Today, the search yields pictures of Korean celebrities and her blog, along with a Quora link to an anonymous user asking how one can find a Korean husband.
She says the best "international couple" channels promote cultural understanding, but warns some are only selling looks and fantasies.
The reality she says, is that women who are serious about settling down with a Korean husband should recognize 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're going to the Han River on picnics, and it's all wonderful and you feel like you're in a K-drama but then what's the reality of actually having a family in Korea?" she said.
'A temporary pleasure'
Unfortunately, some women find after their arrival that the men they encounter are not as perfect as the ones portrayed 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 TV were depicted as "respectful, good looking, rich men who are protective of you," she said.
But during her nights out, she was groped in a bar and propositioned for sex from strangers on the street. She felt some Korean men tended to believe that foreign women are more open to casual sex than local women.
"We are temporary pleasure," she said, adding, "Men are men, humans are alike everywhere."
Since then she has lost her enjoyment of 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 in nightclubs. But she too was disappointed.
She encountered racist attitudes – being rejected by one who told her to "go back to Africa" – and found many men seemed interested only in sex.
In her experience, Korean men treated foreign women differently. "Why can't we go to dinner first? It's so crass. 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 treat foreign women badly with impunity because, as foreigners, they were limited to smaller social circles.
Still, such is the draw that even those who have bad experiences are not always put off.
Some women who flew home disappointed told Lee they felt it was their own fault they had not found their ideal man and 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 back in their home countries," she said.
"They can't really let go of it because they hope that the ideal dating relationships exist somewhere in the world," she said.
CTVNews.ca Top Stories
Jaqueline McDermott, 22, from Kitchener has been reported missing in B.C., and her family is putting out a plea across the country for help. McDermott was last seen by her vehicle after attending a meditation retreat. RCMP said her vehicle was found, but she was not in it or near it.
Cases of COVID-19 are increasing across the country again as fall progresses and winter approaches. But this respiratory pathogen season is different than last year's, experts say, so the public's approach should be different as well.
Wood from primary forests in British Columbia has been used to fuel the U.K.'s largest power plant, according to a BBC investigation; the company denies the allegations.
The Toronto Blue Jays' first foe in the playoffs is now official.
Scientists have uncovered an association between tumours and fungi, which may lead to a deeper understanding towards the biology of certain cancers.
The Invasive Species Council of B.C. is asking the public to report sightings of a 'highly toxic' plant that can leave people's skin blistered and burned – something one family recently learned the hard way.
Public safety minister defends Canada's proposed firearms legislation, says it's needed to end gun violence
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino told a House of Commons committee Tuesday that Bill C-21, the proposed legislation to further restrict access to handguns in Canada, is critical to ending gun violence.
A California serial killer seems to be 'on a mission' throughout the fatal shooting of six men and the wounding of one woman dating back to last year.
Russian troops abandoned a key Ukrainian city so rapidly that they left the bodies of their comrades in the streets, offering more evidence Tuesday of Moscow's latest military defeat as it struggles to hang on to four regions of Ukraine that it illegally annexed last week.
Canadian naval officer relieved of her duties after allegations of inappropriate conduct on NATO mission
A Canadian naval officer has been relieved of her duties aboard a coastal defence vessel deployed on a NATO operation in Europe over allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct.
Two women have critical injuries after a bear attack on a trail in northeastern B.C., local Mounties say.
'It came in straight through the master bedroom': Transport truck slams into home in Nanoose Bay, B.C.
A transport truck driver was airlifted to hospital Monday after his truck slammed through a home in Nanoose Bay, B.C., narrowly missing residents.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Tuesday that the federal government is setting up a $300-million 'Hurricane Fiona recovery fund' to help Atlantic Canadians rebuild from the deadly and destructive post-tropical storm.
Authorities have released video of two suspects vandalizing part of the Olympic cauldron in downtown Vancouver over the weekend – an act police have described as "planned and deliberate."
A malfunctioning South Korean ballistic missile blew up as it plowed into the ground Wednesday during a live-fire drill with the United States that was a reprisal for North Korea's successful launch a day earlier of a weapon that flew over Japan and has the range to strike the U.S. territory of Guam.
A former Tennessee state trooper has gone missing after he was sentenced for a misdemeanor assault conviction on a charge that he pulled the face mask off a protester during the COVID-19 pandemic in August 2020.
Motorcycle-riding gunmen killed a longtime radio commentator in metropolitan Manila in the latest attack on a member of the media in the Philippines, considered one of the world's most dangerous countries for journalists.
Over 200,000 people have already been drafted into Russia's armed forces since President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization two weeks ago, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday.
U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to discuss their next steps after North Korea conducted its longest ever test launch by firing a nuclear-capable ballistic missile over Japan.
As MPs kicked off a study on the future of the House of Commons' use of a hybrid sitting structure, Speaker Anthony Rota is calling for members of Parliament to consider the 'big picture' in making their recommendations as to whether it's time to retire the virtual elements of proceedings that were ushered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The families of those killed when Iran's military shot down Flight 752 in January 2020 are demanding the Canadian government take a harder line against the regime.
Canadians are dropping the ball when it comes to ensuring their kids are getting enough exercise, according to a non-profit's report card.
The European Union is one step closer to forcing Apple and other electronics vendors to use a single charging standard for devices such as phones and tablets.
Elon Musk's monthslong tussle with Twitter took another twist Tuesday when the Tesla billionaire seemed to return to where he started in April — offering to buy the company for US$44 billion.
Google Canada will allocate $2.7 million toward grants helping Indigenous Peoples prepare for tech jobs and teaching media literacy to underrepresented communities.
A court filing Tuesday from Angelina Jolie alleges that on a 2016 flight, Brad Pitt grabbed her by the head and shook her then choked one of their children and struck another when they tried to defend her.
Canadian photographer Douglas Kirkland, whose intimate shots of Marilyn Monroe taken a year before her death earned him the trust of many Hollywood stars, has died at 88.
Emma Caulfield Ford, 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' and 'WandaVision' actress, reveals she has multiple sclerosis
'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' actress Emma Caulfield has revealed that she has multiple sclerosis and that she has been living with the disease since 2010.
HSBC Bank Canada is up for a potential sale as global banking giant HSBC Holdings Plc faces pressure to shake up operations from its largest shareholder.
The tumultuous saga of Elon Musk's on-again off-again purchase of Twitter took a turn toward a conclusion Tuesday after the mercurial Tesla CEO proposed to buy the company at the originally agreed-on price of US$44 billion.
Cheetos has recently unveiled a giant Cheeto statue in Cheadle, Alta.
Prince William delivered his first speech as heir to the British throne at a wildlife protection summit Tuesday, signaling that the royal family will continue to champion environmental causes as King Charles III is forced to step back from front-line campaigning.
The funfair lights at Louis Vuitton shone as brightly as the starry front row Tuesday for the vibrant and infectious spring collection from Nicolas Ghesquiere that capped Paris Fashion Week.
The Toronto Blue Jays' first foe in the playoffs is now official.
Aaron Judge hit his 62nd home run of the season Tuesday night, breaking Roger Maris’ American League record and setting what some fans consider baseball’s 'clean' standard.
Hockey Canada's board chairs, past and present, played defence under House of Commons questioning of the hockey body's handling of alleged sexual assaults and how money was paid out in lawsuits.
Drivers are being alerted to an uptick in stolen cars. Here's how to avoid getting your car taken and a list of Ontario's most stolen vehicles.
Drivers should fill up their tanks today as gas prices in Ontario are forecast to rise in the next few days, with one industry analyst warning that more hikes could be coming.
Gas prices jumped overnight in some cities across Canada, in many cases by around ten cents a litre, and by almost 20 cents in one city.