INCHEON, South Korea (Reuters) - Park Seo-yeon sets the table with dishes of Korean beef, kimchi casserole and rice. Switching on her computer and camera, she begins to eat alone as thousands of viewers watch and chat with her in real time over the Internet.
South Korea's latest fad - gastronomic voyeurism - offers surprising amounts of money to thousands of online diners while serving up a sense of community in the wealthy Asian country's increasingly solitary society.
Known as The Diva, Park broadcasts for up to three hours every day from her apartment outside Seoul. During the show, viewers send her virtual balloons worth 100 won (9 U.S. cents) each, giving her an average monthly income of about $9,400. (afreeca.com/vol33lov)
Park, 34, said the most she earned in one sitting was 1.1 million won. She began her show as a hobby three years ago but has since quit her job at a consulting firm and plans to get into retailing.
"People enjoy the vicarious pleasure when they can't eat this much or find that food at night or are on a diet," she said minutes before a recent broadcast.
She checked on the chatroom while eating a Korean-style beef tartare called yukhoe.
"Let's eat together. Together!" Park said, responding to a viewer's message that said: "I just rushed off and picked up yukhoe".
In modern South Korea, families are fragmenting as old social ties break down.
One-person households are set to increase from 25.3 percent of the total in 2012 to 32.7 percent in 2030, the fastest rate in the rich countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, research papers show.
"Loneliness is another crucial factor," Park said. "The show is addictive as you can communicate with thousands of people at home."
About 3,500 people are running food-eating shows and some hit programmes are sponsored by restaurants.
"It feels as if I am the one eating that much," Park Sun-young, a 26-year-old viewer of The Diva's broadcasts, said at an Internet cafe. "It is comforting for people who eat alone."
The Diva said she is not simply making money from a food binge but is a providing a benefit to society.
"It feels great when people said 'I recovered from anorexia thanks to you' or 'Thank you for a fun and delicious time'," she said. "I am the woman who lives a life to eat."
(Reporting by Ju-min Park and Seongbin Kang; Editing by David Chance and John O'Callaghan)
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