Red Flags in K-Drama: Breakdown of the Toxic Tropes (5 Recs with Green Flags)

K-drama is a phenomenon that has taken over the world by storm in recent years with Netflix shows like Squid Game (2021), Kingdom (2019), Love Alarm (2019) etc. However, even though K-dramas have set the bar high, there are aspects that we older fans have a bone to pick with, especially in the romance genre; namely, the long-fabled male leads with red flags in K-drama that have existed since the Hallyu wave started to take over the world.

Red Flags in K-Drama
Lee Min Ho and Koo Hye Sun in Boys Over Flowers (2009).

Red Flags in K-Drama

Full of handsome leads, quality production, diverse stories and an emphasis on romance, K-dramas are unlike anything you have ever seen before. After many refinements, K-dramas have almost perfected the romance genre. There is sincerity and focus on it, which is very different from other mediums and cultures.

However, you might have come across some major red flags seen in male leads starting from the sudden wrist grabs, jealous outbursts, forced kisses, bullying, and basically being a total jerk to the female lead. It is usually the rich, successful, cold-hearted guy mistaken as a heart-throb who comes across the female lead, who is hardworking and warm-hearted. He falls for her charms and then gets transformed by the power of the love of the female, leading to a dateable good guy. A prime example of this being popularised was the famous K-drama of 2009, Boys Over Flowers.

Famous for its cast consisting of Lee Min Ho, Koo Hye Sun, Kim Bum, Kim Hyun Joong and more, Boys Over Flowers is still considered a classic by many, despite the very toxic traits portrayed by the leads in it. From assault to bullying, this drama has it all. So much so that it gave people second lead syndrome for Kim Hyun Joong’s character.

Still, there are flairs of the K-drama that work their way through the show making it as popular as it was at that time. The same could be said about Heirs (2013), The Last Empress (2018) and more. Portrayed as hard-to-get or “opposites attract” and covered up with the glitz of the actor and actress, the storylines show these main leads’ tantrums as romantic instead of problematic. This tug of “war,” even though it is often one-sided, is a writing technique that is based on the gain-loss theory. 

According to the gain-loss theory, a negative opinion turned positive will result in a stronger relationship than an initial positive opinion. In practice, the enemies-to-lovers trope works because it is a more meaningful attraction and storyline for people, and they are more willing to root for their ship and the couple to get together.

It’s easy to see why romantic K-dramas apply this formula and have such a long back-and-forth between the love interests— it’s all for the plot. There must always be some tension between the couple before they get together in romance media, and in K-dramas, there must be enough tension to last about 15 to 25 hour-long episodes. To keep their audiences engaged, K-dramas require extreme highs and even more extreme lows, ranging from physical and emotional abuse to a lovey-dovey couple.

There are other ways K-dramas perpetuate toxic and abusive relationships as well, such as the cheating romantic interest as seen in The World of the Married (2020), where men with existing commitments deceive multiple women and even after knowing the truth, they get accepted; their sins all forgiven and forgotten. Perhaps, this trope was most utilised in the 2020 drama, Cheat On Me, If You Can, starring Yeo Jeong Cho, Go Jun, and Kim Young Dae. The husband is a serial cheater while continuously deceiving his wife, who has murder on her mind if he’s ever caught cheating.

We also have the clingy, insecure leads, as seen in Cheese in the Trap (2016) as Jung Yoo, played by Park Hae Jin, starts off as the stereotypical rich, handsome, popular, seemingly kind, and well-mannered seonbae but is really rather manipulative and displays psychopathic tendencies, especially towards Hong Seol (Kim Go Eun), who sees right through his facade. But he starts having an interest in her and even starts stalking her despite them both dating at the time. He clearly has issues with trust and receiving love.

Also seen in Heirs, where Kim Tan (Lee Min Ho), a wealthy heir who falls in love with Cha Eun Sang (Park Shin Hye) despite her poor background, shows his love steamed with jealousy. In one scene, Tan interrupts Eun Sang and her friend’s meeting with two male students to discuss an event, making the boys uncomfortable by stating that she’s married.

Remember the trope where the male lead goes, “you’re driving me crazy by wearing your short skirt and letting your guard down around other guys,” in order to sound protective of the female lead, getting angry at her for acting in a certain way? He tells her that she should wear long pants from now on because her legs are too beautiful or that she should stop hanging out with other men because he wants her all to himself. It’s creepy and a massive red flag alert.

Then we have our typical “flirt” category, and who else would be a better example of this than Park Jae Eon, Song Kang’s character in Nevertheless (2021), who gives a new meaning to getting butterflies? He brings up one red flag after another, from reusing his flirtatious moves on several women who swoon over him, lying about meeting them, and feeling jealous and possessive over them when they meet other men. Yet, the impermanence of the endgame between the leads leaves the viewers glued to the screen. While casual dating and open relationships aren’t looked down upon by us, how often do we see both parties agreeing to such relationships?

While Nevertheless mostly speaks true for today’s relationships, it is undoubtedly filled with toxicity.

Green Flags in K-drama

Nevertheless (no pun intended), K-dramas have clearly shown progress recently. We are getting dramas with better scripts where physical/mental abuse is no longer glorified; rather, the respect that the leads show for each other is highlighted. Recent K-dramas have given us both male and female leads who have unproblematic traits and personalities when it comes to romance; in other words— they’re walking green flags.

red flags in k-drama
Shin Se Kyung in Run On (2020).

To get you started, we have compiled a list of 5 such K-dramas portraying healthy traits for the leads when stepping into a relationship, whether these are in the form of relationship dynamics or character development.

Run On (2020)

Many people adored Im Siwan and Shin Se Kyung in their roles as Ki Sun Kyum and Oh Mi Joo, respectively. Sun Kyum is a former track and field athlete, and Mi Joo works as a foreign film translator. The two begin to connect, which leads to a meaningful relationship. Despite being diametrically opposed, they eventually come to accept their differences and meet each other halfway.

The show lacks any sort of major conflict, but it allows for important discussions about relationships, careers, and self-love. Furthermore, it is the ideal wholesome show to enjoy that will not leave you feeling anxious or emotional every five minutes.

It’s a relevant series that shows growth throughout their individual lives as well as their relationship.

She Would Never Know (2021)

She Would Never Know portrays Rowoon as Chae Hyun Seung, a handsome man who develops romantic feelings for his senior at work who is Yoon Song Ah, played by Won Ji Ah, a beautiful woman who sets her mind on her duties.

It stands firm as it shows both the red flags portrayed by Lee Jae Shin (Lee Hyun Wook) while the green flags are crystal clear as Chae Hyun Seung shows his admiration for Song Ah and doesn’t rush to confess his feelings. Jae Shin two-times Song Ah while being engaged to another woman, and when this is revealed, Song Ah’s realisation that she deserves to be treated better comes as a breath of fresh air.

The friends-to-lovers trope done well, She Would Never Know shows how going through different phases of love can play an important role before entering relationships.

Hometown Cha Cha Cha (2018)

This list would be incomplete if Yoon Hye Jin (Shin Min Ah) and Hong Du Sik (Kim Seon Ho) were not included. Yoon Hye Jin is a dentist who ends up moving to the village. She has beauty and brains, but she is strict and does not come as amiable on her first impression, to say the least. However, she soon easily warms up to others. In the village, she meets Hong Du Sik and develops an interest in him. He’s affectionately known as Chief Hong by the locals, and despite being unemployed, he’s always busy helping everyone in the village.

The two exemplify a lovely romance, and their chemistry was palpable from the first teaser that we were given. Their relationship teaches viewers a variety of lessons, including forgiveness, healing, and learning to rely on others when times are tough.

When the Camellia Blooms (2019) 

In this romantic comedy (with a dash of thriller), Gong Hyo Jin plays Dong Baek, a caring single mother, and Kang Ha Neul plays Yong Sik, a high-spirited cop who falls in love with her at first sight. To complicate matters, Dong Baek’s ex-boyfriend and famous baseball player, Kang Jung Ryeol, appears back on the scene, while a serial killer called the joker threatens the peace of the community.

Yong Sik’s quirky and romantic mannerisms towards Dong Baek add a lot of charm to the show. Dong Baek’s character growth over the season makes the show all the more satisfying. Starting off as a shy and insecure woman, Dong Baek eventually becomes fierce and confident. The show’s romance deviates from traditional K-Drama tropes, which aids in the development of the main characters as a couple and as individuals.

Record of Youth (2020) 

An aesthetically pleasing drama right off the bat, Record of Youth showcases the struggles faced by people who want to follow their hearts even when it seems the world is against them.

Ahn Jeong Ha, portrayed by Park So Dam, and Sa Hye Jun, played by Park Bo Gum, are two lonely souls. They are both very honest characters when it comes to their feelings, which is what draws them together. Their interaction is always fascinating, and the bond they form is endearing to watch. One of the leads asks for consent before kissing in one scene, which is bound to make viewers swoon.

It’s a delight to watch these two characters fall in love and navigate through life, knowing that when things get tough, their love brings them comfort.

Park So Dam in Record of Youth (2020).

Conclusion

The lesson of a patriarchal belief is that masculinity is to be limited to force and dominance and that being assertive is romantic as long as you get the girl. These behaviours have long been incorporated into romantic dramas and have a significant influence on contemporary trends and expectations in society. Even if we are aware of the differences between an on-screen romance and a real-life relationship, the romanticised red flag behaviours in dramas will influence how viewers learn and apply these behaviours in real life, which is why it is crucial to point them out all the time.

Shin Se Kyung in Run On (2020).

The progress in the romance genre makes us hopeful for the future of K-dramas. We are always looking forward to dramas which show a good representation of healthy romance and relationships of strangers coming together to overcome obstacles and find love without compromising their self-respect, and most importantly, dramas which go beyond the usual romance and offer different lessons, starting from acknowledging your skills to learning to love yourself. No relationship is perfect, but, patience and mutual love are essential elements for a romantic relationship to thrive.


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Contributors

  • Faeeja Humaira Meem

    Faeeja Humaira Meem, co-founder and editor-in-chief at The Interlude, is an aspiring author and a pro at procrastinating, often blogging about books, life, and everything in between. She is inspired by Samuel Johnson and likes to think she can juggle everything at once, but instead, she is constantly second-guessing her life decisions and avoiding phone calls like a plague.

  • Rafi Ethimad Ashraf is a literary student who loves to procrastinate, play video games, read mangas, watch k-dramas, tv shows or any regarding films. He occasionally writes poetry and mostly likes to see beyond the presented story.

Faeeja Humaira Meem

Faeeja Humaira Meem

Faeeja Humaira Meem, co-founder and editor-in-chief at The Interlude, is an aspiring author and a pro at procrastinating, often blogging about books, life, and everything in between. She is inspired by Samuel Johnson and likes to think she can juggle everything at once, but instead, she is constantly second-guessing her life decisions and avoiding phone calls like a plague.

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