The emergence of kkonminam [literally, “flower handsome man”] is frequently linked to the enormous rise in popularity in Korea of the yaoi genre of comics, following the lifting of the ban on Japanese popular culture in 1998. In the original Japanese yaoi comics, men are commonly depicted with somewhat elf-like features. They often engage in homosexual relationships, and are idealised as soft, sensitive and selﬂ ess. Moto Hagio’s They Were Eleven (1975) provides an early example. In the comic’s sci-ﬁ storyline, ten cadets are left on an abandoned spaceship for 53 days to test their readiness. Two of the characters hail from a species whose gender remains undetermined until adulthood, when it is decided not by biology but by external social forces. One of the characters, Frol, who is undeniably feminine in appearance, is participating in a test that will entitle her to become male, a privilege otherwise granted only to a family’s oldest child. In one intimate scene, Frol’s male friend Tada tries to persuade Frol to become his wife instead: ‘You can come to my planet. We’re monogamous. Marry ME […] you’ll be beautiful’.
Mari Kotani associates the alteration of male bodies in yaoi ﬁction with ‘the desire of women to appropriate the idealised masculine images constructed by male-centered ideologies for themselves’. Thus, while the men take a traditional masculine form, for example, dressing in male clothing, the characters’ beauty is feminine. Toshihiko Sagawa, a former publisher of June (1978-), a magazine for a female readership featuring romantic stories between males, notes that ‘the characters are really an imagined ideal that combine assumed or desired attitudes of both males and females. Thus the heroes can be beautiful and gentle, like females, but without the jealousy and other negative qualities that women sometimes associate with themselves’. Sagawa points out that because men are considered to experience fewer constraints both socially and sexually, many of the readers idealise the friendship and bonding between men as one ultimately based on love.
—Roald Maliangkay, “The effeminacy of male beauty in Korea” International Institute for Asian Studies (Newsletter 55, Autumn/Winter 2010)