Saranghae As A Friend: How to Leave the K-drama Friendzone

What could be more convenient than dating a friend? You already know each other’s idiosyncrasies. You don’t need to go into too much detail about your past because you’ve both lived through it together. You’ve met each other’s families, and you’re pretty much in each other’s lives already.


Ah, but there’s the rub. Because being friends first just means that if the romance doesn’t work out, you’ll have that much more to lose. And so we come to one of the most well-loved conflicts of literature—should friends start dating each other?

Can men and women ever really be just friends? Isn’t that the million-dollar question haunting singles who are ready to mingle these days? K-dramaland has several tricks up its sleeve when it comes to the friends-to-lovers trope. This article lists down some k-drama-tested techniques to get your foot out of the friendzone and into the… well, whatever is next door to that.


Disclaimer: We’ve never actually TRIED these things in real life.


1. A little jealousy goes a long way.

One of the things that differentiate a friendship from a romantic relationship is exclusivity. You’re free to have as many friends with varying degrees of intimacy as you want, but once you start dating, one relationship becomes exclusive. So when one of the two BFFs starts spending less time with the friend and more time with the significant other, this might cause some jealousy. And in k-dramaland, jealousy is the litmus test for your romantic feelings. So, if you want to make it out of the friendzone, you might want to try making the other person jealous. If they bite, good for you. If they don’t, ah well, there is always the enemies-to-lovers trope.


2. Get under someone’s skin with a little skinship.

Skinship is a common word to k-drama fans, but its exact meaning is a little hard to convey. It’s actually from a Japanese term that denotes hugging, touching, and other forms of physical contact to convey feelings of bondedness and relatedness. Skinship can happen between parent and child, friends of the same sex, and friends of the opposite sex. It’s not limited to romantic partners at all, although skinship between platonic friends creates kilig for its viewers in a drama. The premise of platonic friendships is that they aren’t romantic, and therefore, any form of physical touch or closeness shouldn’t increase one's heart rate. But familiarity sometimes breeds attraction (conversely, also contempt, so buyer beware), and k-drama is rife with opportunities for innocent (even if sometimes contrived) skinship. The key is getting as many opportunities as you can—sharing the same couch, checking one’s temperature, or giving piggyback rides, maybe?


3. In vino veritas.

"In wine, truth." Or, in the case of k-dramas, "In soju, truth." If you cannot yet muster some real courage to confess your feelings, k-drama proposes a drunken confession (you can also read our article about soju in k-dramas here.) If the soju-inspired confession goes well, you’re out of the friendzone. If it doesn’t, you can always feign a blackout and pretend nothing ever happened. It sounds like a good deal. It might be tricky, though because you can’t exactly make the best decisions when you’re drunk, and that might lead to other complications you hadn’t counted on. So use this tip with caution.


4. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Or well, it’s that, or it drives home the point that someone's actually much happier without you. Sometimes, you need to stay away from your BFF so they'll recognize how important you are in their lives. K-drama’s batting average is about two years or so. The reason for abruptly leaving includes but is not limited to: losing a parent, fleeing tragic memories, going bankrupt, “finding yourself,” chasing a job opportunity (preferably Europe or the US), and studying. For added drama, you can also completely cut off communication. Never mind emails, video calls, and social media; just completely go off the grid. If you do this, you’ll have to time your return JUST right and make your comeback in a random coffee shop or museum somewhere. Or you could just broach the possibility of an extended absence, and that might get your BFF running to stop you… at the airport, no less.


5. Just say it.

Well, here’s a thought: You could do the adult thing and just say it and let the chips fall where they may. Easier said than done for sure. So, only confess when you’re absolutely sure that you can accept whatever the answer is. (For k-drama confessions, you can read our article here.)

Theoretically, almost all romantic relationships will start with some form of friendship, but here we list the not-so-talked-about dramas (i.e., not the Reply series) where the leads have known each other for years before they actually start dating.

Childhood Chums

Fight For My Way (2017)

Ko Dong-man (Park Seo-joon) and Choi Ae-ra (Kim Ji-won) have been friends since kindergarten. They’re so close that as adults, they’re still neighbors. As they navigate the complex world of adulting, they realize that their feelings for each other aren’t as simple as they used to be either. These two are thisclose to sealing the deal, but an old girlfriend could ruin the timing again, or she might just be the push these two need to finally confess their feelings for each other. (There’s another couple in this drama, too, but frankly, they’re not just as fun to watch as PSJ and KJW.)


Bubblegum (2015)

Park Ri-hwan (Lee Dong-wook) and Kim Haeng-ah (Jung Ryeo-won) are family friends who have grown up together. That already comes with a lot of drama since Kim Heang-ah is an orphan and had a complicated childhood. Park Ri-hwan’s mother technically approves of Kim Heang-ah as a friend and not as a life partner because she’s just not good enough for her wealthy, eligible Asian doctor son. So before they can even get together, there’s already a disapproving mama-in-law standing in their way. Of course, she’s just thinking ahead because the two leads haven’t even really figured out what they feel for each other yet.


My First First Love Seasons 1 and 2 (2019)

Childhood friends Yun Tae-o (Ji-soo) and Han Song-i (Jung Chae-yeon) are finally in college. By some circumstance Yun Tae-o, Han Song-i, and a group of other young adults find themselves living under the same roof. Aigoo, shared accommodation complicates things for university students with raging hormones. And it doesn’t help that Han Song-i has fallen for Yun Tae-o’s friend because now Yun Tae-o is starting to feel jealous. Could he have (gasp) fallen in love with his childhood friend?


Into the Ring/ Memorials (2020)

Goo Se-ra (Nana) is infamous for her detailed complaints to civil servants in her local district. She may finally have met her match with public servant Seo Kong-myung (Park Sung-hoon), a stickler for details and protocol. Wait a minute! He looks familiar. He couldn’t be her long-lost childhood best friend whom she hasn’t heard from in ages (because of...see possible reason in tip #4), could he? This is k-dramaland: of course, he is. As they deal with political issues left and right (this is a part rom-com, part workplace drama), Goo Se-ra realizes that she doesn’t just want him as a colleague; she wants to date him. Seo Kong-myung is a little harder to convince, but Goo Se-ra has never backed down from a challenge before. Will the feisty girl get the stoic boy’s heart?

High School Homies

More Than Friends (2020)

Whatever happens to those k-drama characters who do the adult thing and confess AND get rejected? You can ask Kyung Woo-yeon (Shin Ye-eun). She’s confessed to her friend Lee Soo (Ong Seong-wu) twice. And was rejected...TWICE! And they’re still friends. Well, sort of. They’re grownups now and stuck in a Venn diagram of friendzone, no-labels, and awkward romantic tension. Finally, Kyung Woo-yeon has had it and decides to go where she is appreciated, straight into the arms of On Joon-soo (Kim Dong-jun). But now Lee Soo realizes he’s made a mistake. Oh, the tangled lives these two lead. And they’re not the only couple dealing with this either. This drama has two other couples overcoming the friends-to-lovers, lovers-to-friends tropes. It’s like the American sitcom Friends, but with less laughter and more bokeh.

21st Century Boy and Girl/ Children of the 20th Century (2017)

Sa Jin-jin (Han Ye-seul) and Gong Ji-won (Kim Ji-suk) were high school carpool-mates (how adorable is that) with two other students. The four of them had a lot of fun hanging out. Just when things in the romantic department started looking up for the two of them, Gong Ji-won suddenly moved away (ah, absence), and they lost touch. She’s a popular actress now, and he’s a hotshot finance guy, and he’s back in the neighborhood. The friendship just naturally resumes. Things get a little complicated when the sparks start to fly. After all, she’s a celebrity now and is way out of his league. And she still hasn’t quite forgiven him for just dropping off the face of the earth all those years ago. He’ll need all the tips and more to make it out of the friendzone this time around.


The Time We Were Not In Love/ The Time I’ve Loved You (2015)

Choi Won (Lee Jin-wook) is a free-spirited flight attendant who dates a lot. Oh Ha-na (Ha Ji-won), a shoe designer, has just broken up with a longtime boyfriend. They live next door to each other and have been BFFs since high school. Now they’re in their 30s and realize that what they need is actually what they have with each other, only they’re still just friends. As the title suggests, these two just can’t get the timing right, even if they’re so clearly meant for each other.

College Confidantes

You Drive Me Crazy (2018)

This drama between two friends starts with some skinship. A little too much skinship because now things are awkward between translator Han Eun-sung (Lee Yoo-young) and artist Kim Rae-wan (Kim Seon-ho). They’ve been friends for eight years (since college, we presume, but there’s too little backstory to be sure). This cute little four-episode drama considers what happens when two people make it out of the friendzone, and one of them wants to go back.

Med Schoolmates

Hospital Playlist Season 1 (2020) and Season 2 (2021)

Written and directed by the same team as the Reply series, this drama takes the cake for the longest slow-burn romance ever. Lee Ik-jun (Jo Jung-suk) and Chae Song-hwa (Jeon Mi-do) and their three other friends met each other when they started medical school. Now in their 40s, they treat each other like family. But Lee Ik-Jun’s always had a thing for Chae Song-hwa, and now they’re both single, should he risk losing his best friend for a shot at love? Or will she always be the one that got away?

What are your favorite friends-to-lovers k-drama rom-coms?

Also, check out our other Saranghae features that offer a bit of a dive into Korean popular culture:

The Shaman in K-drama and Popular Culture

Love and Amnesia in K-dramas

The K-drama Confession

Searching for Soulmates

Alcohol and K-drama

Fate in Fantasy K-dramas

Shakespeare in K-dramaland

K-drama Medical Characters We Love

Infidelity in K-drama

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