Min Joo Lee does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
The term refers to the disparate genres of television dramas produced in South Korea, including mystery, crime and rom-com. Regardless of genre, most K-dramas seek to elicit a visceral response in viewers – laughter, tears, anger, indignation. The series usually feature charming, well-groomed actors who are in touch with their emotions.
When I was in elementary school in the U.S., I regularly went with my parents to a Korean grocery store an hour away from my home to borrow VHS tapes of K-dramas. Eventually, streaming services ended the need for VHS rentals, and I could watch my favorite K-dramas, such as “The Innocent Man,” on platforms such as Rakuten Viki and Dramafever.
I turned my passion for South Korean television into a career by earning a doctorate in gender studies at University of California, Los Angeles, where I researched the racial, gender and sexual politics surrounding the global popularity of K-dramas.
For my dissertation, I interviewed women from different parts of the world who were inspired by K-dramas to travel to South Korea to experience the culture firsthand. To meet them, I stayed at guesthouses around Seoul near K-drama filming locations and popular tourist destinations.
More broadly, I wanted to learn about what drew them to South Korea. But I soon realized that a significant number of tourists were less interested in the sights and sounds – and more interested in the men.
The rise of the K-drama
Some of the first K-dramas to attract a following outside of South Korea were “Jewel in the Palace,” “Guardian: Lonely and Great God” and “My Love from the Star,” which aired at the start of the 21st century. People around the world watched them on legal streaming websites offering subtitles, as well as on illegal, fan-operated streaming sites where volunteers wrote subtitles.
In recent years, K-dramas have gone mainstream. Today, streaming platforms such as Netflix and Disney+ not only offer up a bevy of K-dramas for their subscribers, they’ve also produced K-dramas of their own, such as “Squid Game” and “The King’s Affection.”
The worldwide popularity of K-dramas occurred alongside the popularity of other South Korean cultural products, including K-pop, cosmetics and food. This phenomenon is known as “Hallyu,” or the “Korean Wave.”
‘Hallyu tourism’ – with a twist
South Korean locals call these visitors “Hallyu tourists.” Many of them dine at restaurants and street food vendors so they can try out the food that they see in K-dramas, visit K-drama filming locales or attend a live K-pop performance.
However, a significant subset – the group I came to be most interested in – travel to South Korea for love. Drawn to the characters they see on their TVs, they start to wonder if real-life South Korean men resemble the K-drama male characters, both in their looks and behaviors.
They come from all around the world – North America, Western Europe, Russia – but tend to have a similar profile: heterosexual women in their early to mid- 20s.
In 2017 and 2018, I stayed in the guesthouses and hostels that Hallyu tourists frequented when they visited South Korea. The tourists who were interested in Korean men soon stood out. Unlike the other tourists who would wake up early so they heb een kijkje hier could explore the city, these tourists would sleep in or watch K-dramas during the day, and then dress up and put on makeup before hitting the clubs and bars at night. They had one primary goal: to meet a Korean man.