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Somewhere between distance, intimacy: Love in the time of coronavirus

How young Koreans are navigating through new orders of pandemic romance


Twenty-seven-year-old Park Sara had decided 2020 was going to be a time for focusing on herself as the coronavirus gripped the country.

“I made peace with the fact that my life would be on hold for a while,” said the office worker in Seoul.

But that was before she knew the pandemic would last well through the year and beyond, with no clear end in sight. “This pandemic is just unrelenting,” she said. Now she finds herself reconsidering her extended break from dating.

In a time of social distancing, Park is not the only one who is opting to stay solo. Nearly 80 percent of singles aged between 25 and 49 stopped looking for romance since February last year, according to a May survey by the Korea Development Institute’s School of Public Policy and Management. About a third of them cited the coronavirus as the prime reason.

The pandemic has raised the stakes for falling in love. For one thing, it means risking one’s health.

On top of the threat of catching the disease, for Park, what prevented her from “putting herself out there” was the horror of her pre-diagnosis itinerary being alerted to all her close contacts should she get infected.

“Imagine having to explain to contact tracers you might have caught the coronavirus from a blind date or something,” she said. “I would be mortified.”

Another Seoul resident, Song Ji-min, said the socially distanced ways of meeting new people were “painfully awkward.”

“There is nothing casual about coronavirus-safe rendezvous,” she said.

Pandemic anxieties killed the mystery of random encounters at a bar or the spontaneity of first moves on a date, said Song, a recent university graduate. After all, kisses are the antithesis of social distancing.

She said she also found herself being more choosy when her friends offer to set her up with someone. “Under normal circumstances, I would take the chance. But if I’m going to risk coronavirus, he better be really worth it,” she said.

As mingling in the real world is stunted by social distancing, virtual dating is booming, with Millennials and Gen Zers flocking from platform to platform in the hopes of finding new love. The hot app at the moment is Clubhouse, according to Yeo Hyun-min, a developer in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, in his mid-20s.

On Friday and Saturday evenings, the social audio app brims with blind date sessions where people “check each other out” and if things work out, eventually hang out offline. The chat’s moderator plays matchmaker and invites some of the listeners as speakers. They are given about 30 seconds to introduce themselves, including what they’re like as a romantic partner.

“But what really matters is probably your profile picture,” said Yeo. These would-be daters often list Myers-Briggs personality types, zodiac signs, alma maters and other clues about themselves on the bio.

Yeo felt the pandemic has “decimated his chances” of having a love life, which prompted him to venture online. He said the dating apps weren’t really for him, which were “too desperate” for his liking. So he found a perfect compromise in the social media sphere.

“I like that there’s not much pressure. There’s understanding on both sides that DM-ing or following each other doesn’t mean it will lead to anything,” he said. “I think it’s a great way of discovering new people in general, not necessarily for dating purposes.”

Kim Ah-yeon, a sophomore at a Seoul-based university, said romantic sparks do happen without ever meeting in person through video calls and other online exchanges -- and more frequently than one would expect.

“Zoom crushes are a thing now,” she said. “People are private messaging during Zoom classes if they find someone attractive on the video chat, and some of them have actually hit it off. I think after over a year of social distancing, many people are craving connections.”

Those who were already in a relationship before the pandemic began say coronavirus romance does have its perks.

“You spend more time with each other than you normally would, because you’re seeing less of friends and co-workers,” said Lee Yun-sung, a 29-year-old marketer in Seoul. He also found the at-home dates to be more intimate. When they are out, they go on getaways outside the city more frequently in attempts to find remote spots away from crowds.

“I feel lucky to have met her before this difficult time,” he said. “In a way, the pandemic has brought us closer together.”

By Kim Arin (

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