Korean culture has been growing in popularity throughout the world for quite some time, even before Parasite became a global phenomenon and won practically every major award in cinema, including the top honors at the Oscars in 2020. You may be familiar with the name BTS thanks to the popularity of the Korean Wave, commonly known as Hallyu.
Or maybe you’ve developed a taste for fine Korean dining at places like Cote and Atomix, both of which have Michelin stars. Or maybe you’ve got a 10-step skincare routine that includes Korean beauty items that you use every night.
Korean television dramas, while not as critically acclaimed as the country’s film output, are still an integral aspect of Korean culture, and many of the greatest can be found streaming on Netflix. We’ve compiled a list of the best Korean dramas now available on your favorite streaming service, including everything from breathtaking period pieces to delightful romantic comedies and more than a few zombie thrillers.
1. Twenty Five Twenty One
The newest romantic comedy that has everyone raving is a sweetly sentimental coming-of-age story that spans ten years. High school fencing prodigy Hee-do (Kim Tae-ri of “Mister Sunshine”) and former chaebol scion Yi-jin (Nam Joo-hyuk of “Start-Up”) depict how the Asian financial crisis of the late ’90s influenced their life (and eventual love story).
Similar to Sex and the City with a more somber undercurrent, Thirty-Nine follows three best friends as they face the challenges of life on the cusp of their forties in terms of love, work, and grief. Mi-jo (Son Ye-jin, Crash Landing on You), Chan-young (Jeon Mi-do), and Joo-hee (the cosmetics manager at a department store) are a dynamic duo (Kim Ji-hyun).
3. Our Beloved Summer
Two high school sweethearts broke up while the cameras were rolling on a documentary series about their school. Even after they broke up, the documentary lived on. The film becomes so popular that its producers want a sequel ten years later, bringing together an estranged couple who had vowed never to see one other again.
4. All of Us Are Dead
All of Us Are Dead takes the standard zombie horror idea and adds a coming-of-age spin on it by placing the action in a high school. An epidemic is caused by a botched science experiment, and the students are left to fend for themselves on campus.
The first season premiered in January and quickly rose to the top of Netflix’s worldwide top ten list, winning acclaim for its allegories to both universal (Covid) and Korean cultural phenomena (the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, intense academic stress). We have some good news for you, loyal viewers: production has begun on season two.
5. My Name
A young woman, aged 17, is so consumed with the need for vengeance after witnessing the murder of her father that she goes to the merciless drug lord for whom her father had worked.
He recruits her as the newest member of his criminal organization, and she spends the next four years preparing to become a police officer and work in the narcotics section in order to track down her father’s killer and, more importantly, show her loyalty to the organization.
There has been a mandatory 18-month military service requirement for all Korean males between the ages of 18 and 35 since 1957. It has also long been known that the military is plagued by pervasive instances of excessive hazing and bullying. D.P. is a fictitious account of what truly goes on in the ranks and chronicles the narrative of a team of military police whose mission is to find deserters. It is one of the most daring Korean productions of recent times.
7. Squid Game
This intensely dystopian thriller (imagine The Hunger Games crossed with Parasite, but with a lot more violence) was such a global sensation last autumn that it overtook Bridgerton as Netflix’s all-time most-watched show.
Here’s the sick idea: 456 unemployed adults are urged to play a variety of classic children’s games in exchange for cash. The winner of the game will receive a large sum of money, but the losers will have to pay with their lives. (Prepare yourself to watch the entire first season in one sitting.)
Despite the fact that Hellbound wasn’t as successful as Squid Game on the internet, it was still a great contribution to the dystopian genre. The programme offers a bleak take on sin and religious fundamentalism by depicting a society in which “sinners” are given foreboding warnings of their impending deaths, and when that time comes, animals from the underworld surface to hunt them down and forcibly consign them to hell.
Because what good is a dystopian novel if its protagonist isn’t a mysterious religious cult leader?
9. Sweet Home
Another show about zombies, yay! Character and story development, together with gory, edge-of-your-seat action moments, give a new spin on the old apocalyptic survival myth of people holed up in an apartment building banding together to combat the flesh-eating, humanity-threatening creatures outside.
10. Hotel del Luna
Boutique hotel with a long history, Hotel del Luna may be found in the middle of modern-day downtown Seoul. But there’s a catch. It’s governed by Jang Man-wol (pop star-turned-actress IU), a mysterious, temperamental, and greedy lady who was doomed to this career for a sin committed 1,300 years ago.
Except for the new general manager, Yeo Jin-goo, a Harvard-educated ambitious hotelier who is also cursed to this position because of a contract his father struck with Man-wol 21 years ago, every employee at the hotel is a ghost.
11. Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha
In this delightful romantic comedy, Shin Min-a plays a high-flying dentist from the big city who loses her job and moves to a little coastal hamlet to start over. As she settles into her new, much less glamorous existence, she meets the village’s practical jack-of-all-trades (Kim Seon-ho).
Mine follows a powerful chaebol family, and more specifically it’s two daughters-in-law who are trying to carve out an identity for themselves and reclaim what is rightfully theirs in a patriarchal society, much like other recent Korean shows that have offered a blistering portrayal of the lives of the country’s stratospherically wealthy (see:
The Penthouse and Sky Castle, unfortunately not on Netflix, yet). Watch for a binge-worthy, complex plot and excellent lead actresses like Lee Bo-young and Kim Seo-hyung, who brings to mind Tilda Swinton in I Am Love with her exquisite elegance and grace, and the show is evocative of Succession, Downton Abbey, and Big Little Lies.
Long-term crush Song Joong-ki plays the lead role of Vincenzo, who was adopted as a child by the boss of an Italian criminal family and eventually rises through the ranks to become a trusted consigliere for the mafia. Vincenzo is driven from his home in Italy due to infighting and betrayal, and he eventually winds up in Korea, where he takes on a new adversary: a vicious multinational corporation.
14. The Uncanny Counter
A handicapped youngster joins the Counters, a supernatural organization that hunts down bad spirits who have left their graves and are corrupting their human hosts into performing horrific atrocities, in this classic paranormal thriller.
He becomes a member of a group of demon hunters, using a noodle restaurant as a cover for their activities, and as a result, he has superhuman and psychic skills and lives a double life, pretending to be a high school student by day and a vigilante by night.
Now in its second season (with fans hoping for a third), this critically acclaimed murder drama was named one of the greatest TV programmes of 2017 by The New York Times. Bae Doona, a muse for Louis Vuitton, portrays a lovely investigator who partners with a prosecutor who has a low EQ due to a childhood brain operation gone awry.
On the journey, they learn about political machinations hatched by Korean television’s favorite bad guys, the omnipotent, nefarious corporations.
Start-Up, as the name indicates, follows a group of young professionals in South Korea’s equivalent of Silicon Valley. Although the characters’ workplace trials may be evocative of HBO’s Silicon Valley, the programme is more rom-com than business satire (so, you know, love triangles, meet-cutes, etc.).
17. Mr. Sunshine
This historical drama takes place in late Joseon, Korea’s final kingdom before Japan’s annexation of the nation in the early twentieth century. Having served in the United States Marine Corps, Lee Byung-character, hun’s Eugene Choi, returns to his homeland and falls in love with Go Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri of The Handmaiden), a noblewoman who moonlights for the Righteous Army, a militia fighting for Korean independence.
Love triangles, historical context, and thrilling action: Mr. Sunshine has it all. First and foremost, it’s a gorgeous cinematic tribute to Korea before its fateful modernization.
18. It’s Okay to Not Be Okay
In Korea, discussions of mental health are often avoided at all costs, but that is exactly what this programme is all about. While Seo Ye-ji, author of many children’s books, suffers from an antisocial personality disorder, Kim Soo-hyun, who works in a mental institution, has both great emotional intelligence and the burden of caring for his autistic elder brother. When a girl and a boy meet, they both start to feel better.
This Netflix original (with two seasons now available and a third on the coming) is set in the Joseon era, when the king is diagnosed with a mystery disease and thought to be dead. Despite his best efforts, Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon) is unable to get access to the palace and learn the truth about his father’s illness from his power-hungry stepmother and her father (by getting rid of Lee Chang, for one).
The monarch has been transformed into a flesh-eating zombie, proving that he is very much alive. As the epidemic sweeps over the realm, the Crown Prince must take action to protect his people and reveal the sinister plot behind his stepmother’s rise to power. It’s a cross between “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead,” except it was set in Korea in the 17th century.
Like those series, Kingdom explores the intriguing question of whether or not human beings may be even more horrible than the zombies that seek them. Yes.
20. Itaewon Class
When Park Sae-ro-yi (Park Seo-joon) punches a school bully, he ends up getting expelled. The bully just so happens to be the son of the highly powerful owner of food giant Jangga Group. Then his father is killed in a hit-and-run by the same wealthy bully who had previously threatened him. Sae-ro-yi spends three years in prison for nearly killing his father.
After serving his time, he plans to build a bar in Seoul’s Itaewon area with the intention of turning it into a franchise and bringing down the strong food conglomerate that destroyed his life.
The bar’s staff includes a transgender woman, a Guinean-Korean, a former gangster, and a psychopath; the story was praised for its representation of the challenges these individuals face as they attempt to integrate into a culture that is not always welcoming to those who are different.
21. When the Camellia Blooms
A single mother (Gong Hyo-jin) and her young boy go to a rural area where she operates a bar. She is often mocked by the other women in the hamlet because she serves alcohol for a job and because she is a single mother (another taboo issue in Korea).
However, not everyone is unhappy to see her; a police officer (Kang Ha-neul) in the area is immediately taken with her. The programme has elements of a romantic comedy, such as the protagonist’s touching scenes with her kid, but it also has a thriller element. Unless her admirer stops the serial murderer in his tracks, she will be the next victim.
Oh Ji-soo (Kim Dong-hee), a senior at his high school, is seen by his peers and teachers as simply another example of the stereotypical nerdy overachiever. In order to secure his financial future, he works as a security guard for an underground prostitution ring outside of school hours. When a fellow student learns of his secret and wants in on the action, things quickly become more difficult and hazardous.
23. Hospital Playlist
Similar to Grey’s Anatomy, this show follows five lifelong friends who met as medical students and are now attending physicians at the same institution. Their lives in and out of the surgery room are fraught with difficulties. Some sort of stress reliever? By performing in a band regularly (thus, Playlist).
Yoon Jae-hee is a partner at a prominent law firm with an impressive resume and a massive ego in the legal drama about two attorneys who defend the top one percent of society. Attorney Jung Geum-ja operates solo out of her home.
Both are driven by enormous ambition and will stop at nothing in their pursuit of the highest-profile and most profitable cases. Hyena is enjoyable because of its stellar ensemble, which includes Ju Ji-hoon from Kingdom and A-list actress Kim Hye-soo.
Stuntman Cha Dal-gun (Lee Seung-gi) is determined to learn the truth about the accident of the plane he was riding in, which was bringing his baby nephew to Morocco. The two begin to investigate a terrorist plot that involves the Blue House with the aid of National Intelligence Service agent Go Hae-ri (Bae Suzy) (aka the presidency).
26. The Heirs
Cha Eun-sang (Park Shin-hye), like Seth Cohen’s character in the American version of The O.C., works many jobs to make ends meet while living with the rich Kim family, where her mother is a cleaner. After receiving a scholarship to attend the same high school as the children of Korea’s one percent, she finds herself in the heart of a love triangle involving Kim Tan, scion of the wealthy Kim family, played by Lee Min-ho, and Choi Young-do, an enemy of the Kim family (Kim Woo-bin).
27. Crash Landing on You
Son Ye-jin stars as a South Korean heiress who takes a paragliding trip and finds herself on the North Korean side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) (the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas). It is Captain Ri Jeong-hyeok (Hyun-bin) of the North Korean Special Police Force who comes to her aid.
They fall in love, as expected, and he has to maintain her secret and return her to her own country before anybody finds out who she really is. Thanks to its A-list cast, strong supporting cast, and nuanced depiction of life in North Korea, Crash Landing on You was a rating smash, becoming the third highest-rated drama in Korean TV history.
28. Romance is a Bonus Book
Kang Dan-i (Lee Na-young), a former copywriter, is currently unemployed, divorced, and raising a child on her own. To this day, Cha Eun-ho (Lee Jong-suk) is her closest confidante and confidante in all things literary. Dan-i agrees to help Eun-ho look for a maid, but without his knowledge, she begins cleaning his home herself.
She eventually tells Eun-ho the truth and gets a temporary position at his publishing company. Dan-struggle i’s to re-enter the workforce after taking time off to have a child lends an interesting depth to this pleasant romantic comedy.
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