If you've been watching k-dramas for a while, you're probably familiar with the second lead character. Maybe you fell for him, only to feel crushed when he didn't get a happily ever after. Well, this blog is for you! Here's everything you need to know about second leads and the second lead syndrome in Korean dramas.
Warning: Expect many spoilers.
Second Lead: Signs and Tropes
The second lead character - usually a guy - is one way that k-dramas grab viewers' attention, adding tension with the good old love triangle. While the simplest way to describe the second lead is that he is the main lead's rival, there are other ways to spot him.
In Gook-doo from Strong Girl Bong-soon / JTBC via Noonas Over Forks
In some shows, they are a friend or former friend of one or both leads. They are close to the protagonist, knowing all their secrets, dreams, and weaknesses. In some shows, the two have a falling-out before the main storyline begins, leaving the other main lead to try and get them to reconcile.
Song Shi-ho from Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo / MBC via IBTimes India
In other series, the second lead is a current or former boyfriend/girlfriend or fiancé/fiancée. They already have a claim on the main lead and are hostile towards the new love interest. Once they see the bond between the main couple, however, the second lead will back off and may even become friends with their partner's new love interest.
Han Seo-jun from True Beauty / tvN via ❃fav⁷ on Twitter
In some love triangles, the second lead is warm and friendly compared to the (outwardly) cold and distant main lead. Even if life hasn't been good to them, they're still cheerful and compassionate, winning peers and audiences over with their charms and smiles.
Lee Hye-yeong from Love Alarm / Netflix via detikhot
Adding on that point, the second lead may have had a difficult or poor childhood. Viewers have a soft spot for characters with tragic backstories, so the romance also acts as an underdog story to see whether the pauper beats the prince to get the princess.
Yoon Ji-hu and Geum Jan-di from Boys Over Flowers / KBS2 via Fall in Love on Tumblr
In the case of some k-dramas, the second lead treats the heroine better than the male lead. We'll get to some examples in a bit, but audiences are more likely to root for Hero No. 2 if Hero No. 1 treats the female lead like trash.
D.O. from Exo Next Door / Naver via Amour KD on Twitter
Ultimately, the second lead's Achilles heel is their hesitation to show their true feelings. They might be afraid of ruining their friendship if they confess, or they've seen that the object of their affections loves someone else. While their actions may seem noble, it allows the main lead to act first, and the second lead loses their chance.
Hong Seol and Baek In-ho from Cheese in the Trap / tvN via Funcurve
If the second lead resonates with enough audience members, then they trigger the "Second Lead Syndrome." Viewers who have it will root for the second lead. It's a bad sign, however, since most k-dramas have the main lead get the girl/guy. (Though not all, as we'll see in a bit.)
Popular Second Leads Who Didn't Get the Girl
There are a few k-dramas which gave viewers a heavy dose of the Second Lead Syndrome. Audiences were either unable to choose between the two male/female leads or were hoping against hope that the second lead would win. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case.
Han Seo-jun from True Beauty (2020-2021)
Image Credits: tvN via Kpopmap
The k-drama equivalent of Twilight's Team Jacob vs. Team Edward. Han Seo-jun (Hwang In-youp) used to be friends with Lee Su-ho (Cha Eun-woo) until a terrible incident turned them against each other. Once an idol trainee, he looks tough but is friendly and kind. Understandably, Lim Ju-kyung (Moon Ga-young) is torn between him and Su-ho, and so were fans! However, she chooses Su-ho, pleasing his fanbase and disappointing Seo-jun's.
Yoon Ji-hu from Boys Over Flowers (2009)
Image Credits: KBS2 via Deviant Art
A Hallyu classic, BOF introduced us to the F4, which includes male lead Go Jun-pyo (Lee Min-ho) and second lead Yoon Ji-hu (Kim Hyun-joong). Compared to the arrogant Jun-pyo, Ji-hu is caring and gentlemanly towards Geum Jan-di (Ku Hye-sun). A love triangle forms, but Jun-pyo comes out on top. Considering that Ji-hu was up against Lee Min-ho's character, he didn't stand much of a chance.
Choi Young-do from The Heirs (2013)
Image Credits: SBS via Outside Seoul
Another Lee Min-ho k-drama. This time, the second lead is Choi Young-do (Kim Woo-bin). Unlike Kim Tan, who is a more likeable male lead, Young-do bullies everyone, even Cha Eun-sang (Park Shin-hye). However, he develops feelings for her, putting him at odds with his friend-turned-enemy. While Young-do loses Eun-sang, fans were happy to see him get closure with other pressing family matters.
Baek In-ho from Cheese in the Trap (2016)
Image Credits: tvN via Black & Yellow Otaku Gamers
Go Jun-pyo may have been arrogant, but Yoo Jung (Park Hae-jin) is an actual psycho. So many fans wanted Hong Seol (Kim Go-eun) to end up with Baek In-ho (Seo Kang-joon), who knows his boundaries and treats Seol with respect, instead. However, Seol-Jung reigns supreme, leaving audiences with a bitter taste in their mouths, especially since In-ho was given more screen time than Jung.
Note: No English subtitles available
Han Woo-tak from While You Were Sleeping (2017)
Image Credits: SBS via Jung Hae In 정해인 Philippines on Facebook
We end this string of toxic triangles and move to a series where both male leads are worthy of the female lead's hand. Han Woo-tak (Jung Hae-in) is an aspiring police officer who is secretly color blind. He develops feelings for Nam Hong-joo (Bae Suzy) but holds back when she falls for Jung Jae-chan (Lee Jong-suk). We can't help but feel sorry for Woo-tak, who cares for Hong-joo while knowing it's a lost cause.
Oh Soo-ah from Itaewon Class (2020)
Image Credits: JTBC via KBIZoom
Step aside, gentlemen. It's time for the ladies. Oh Soo-ah (Kwon Nara) used to be Park Sae-ro-yi's (Park Seo-joon) crush. However, when he's put in jail, Soo-ah is hired by Jangga Group, the company who laters competes against Sae-ro-yi's startup DanBam. She still has feelings for Sae-ro-yi, leading her to turn against Jangga Group. In the end, the two remain good friends, which may have broken some fans' hearts but gave them a somewhat happy ending.
Popular Second Leads Who Got the Girl
Usually, the second lead is left alone at the end of the k-drama or finds a new love. In rare cases, he manages to get the female lead. For better or worse, these writers chose to go against the tried-and-true formula, making the following k-dramas stand out from the rest.
Choi Taek from Reply 1988 (2015-2016)
A shocking twist that still has fans talking today. Reply 1988 follows five childhood friends, two of whom marry each other. The identity of Sung Deok-sun's (Lee Hye-ri) eventual husband is hidden for most of the show. Many fans speculated it was Kim Jung-hwan (Ryu Jun-yeol), due to their chemistry and his amount of screen time. But no, it's Choi Taek (Park Bo-gum). If you're sore about this reveal, we have good news: Hye-ri and Jun-yeol are a real-life couple!
Image Credits: tvN via Cosmopolitan
Yun Tae-o from My First First Love (2019)
Image Credits: Netflix via Cosmopolitan
It seemed that Ji Soo would be stuck playing the rejected second lead, until My First First Love came along. His character is Yun Tae-o whose friends, including Han Song-i (Jung Chae-yeon), move into his house. Tae-o has unrequited feelings for Song-i, but she is dating Seo Do-hyeon (Jung Jin-young). To cut a long story short, Song-i realizes her true feelings for Tae-o and, in Season 2, becomes his girlfriend. We'd say that's a happy ending.
Lee Hye-yeong from Love Alarm (2019-2021)
Image Credits: Netflix via Cosmopolitan
Another show where the female lead (Kim So-hyun) switches from the main lead (Song Kang) to the second lead (Jung Ga-ram). Hye-yeong is a friend of Jo-jo's first boyfriend Sun-oh, but he comes from a poorer background. He doesn't let that stop him and proves his commitment to Jo-jo through his actions. While both men have positive traits, she ultimately chooses Hye-yeong over Sun-oh.
Wang Rin from The King in Love/The King Is In Love/The King Loves (2017)
Image Credits: MBC via Dramabeans
Stop us if you've heard this one: Two friends come into conflict over a woman. Wang Won (Im Si-wan) is the Crown Prince, while Wang Rin (Hong Jong-hyun) is a nobleman and his best friend. They both fall for the mysterious Eun-San (Im Yoon-ah). However, it's Wang Won who steps aside and allows Wang Rin to take the lead. It's a bittersweet resolution for Won-San shippers, but the best ending ever for Rin-San shippers.
We hope you enjoyed this deep dive into one of the most beloved - or most hated - tropes in k-dramas. Was your favorite second lead on this list? Tell us their name, and whether they got their happy ending, below.
Image Credits: Image via Seoulbox
And if you're feeling hurt because of your character's fate, order one of our boxes. This month's theme is Korean Dramas. Choose from the regular Seoulbox Signature or vegetarian V to get tasty snacks and more k-drama facts!