South Korea is one of the world’s biggest exporters of popular culture. From K-pop to K-dramas, Parasite to BTS, the East Asian country knows how to reach an international audience. Korean TV, especially K-dramas, have long been of interest to western markets, but it’s no longer just the Korean diaspora or romance drama fans underserved by western markets checking out K-dramas, international watchers of Korean dramas have become much more “mainstream” in the last few years, especially with Netflix’s increased focus and investment in the region.
Netflix has played a major role in this expansion of Korean TV into the global market. The streamer has not only scooped up an impressive backlog of Korean originals as a global distributor, but, since 2016, has been investing in the Korean TV industry at the production level. At the beginning of 2021, Netflix released an official statement announcing the leasing of two production facilities outside of Seoul, citing the move as “another important example of our continued commitment to investing in Korea’s creative ecosystem.” According to the release, from 2015 to 2020, Netflix invested over 700 million dollars in Korean content. The company also has multi-year content partnerships with CJ ENM/Studio Dragon and JTBC.
Suffice to say, Netflix has a solid Korean TV section, filled with some of the best K-dramas around, both new and old. If you’re new to the world of Korean TV or if you’re simply looking for your next watch, why not try out one of the following…
Crash Landing On You (2019)
The absolute top secret love story of a chaebol heiress who made an emergency landing in North Korea because of a paragliding accident and a North Korean special officer who falls in love with her and who is hiding and protecting her.
If you’re at all tapped into the K-drama scene, then you have at least heard of Crash Landing on You if not binged it multiple times. An original production from Netflix, Crash Landing On You pairs rom-com and character drama elements with an exploration of the cultural pain inherent in the separation between North and South Korea. With charismatic and vulnerable performances from veteran K-drama leads Son Ye-jin as South Korean heiress Yoon Se-ri and Hyun Bin as North Korean soldier Ri Jeong-hyeok; some gorgeous production values; and a memorably melodramatic soundtrack, Crash Landing On You is a whirlwind action-romance that was one of the best shows of 2020, full stop.
In a kingdom defeated by corruption and famine, a mysterious plague spreads to turn the infected into monsters. The crown prince, framed for treason and desperate to save his people, sets out on a journey to unveil what evil lurks in the dark.
If you prefer your TV more horror-driven, Korean TV has some notable shows for you. One of the most internationally popular is Kingdom, a historical zombie drama about a 17th century crown prince who has to fight against a mysterious plague of flesh-eating zombies that threatens to overtake his kingdom. Most K-dramas are structured to tell their entire story in one season, but Kingdom has already had two seasons with a third on the way, as well as a one-off special that just premiered on Netflix called Kingdom: Ashin of the North. If you’re looking to get into a longer-running K-drama that favors horror over romance, this could be the one for you.
It’s Okay to Not Be Okay (2020)
Desperate to escape from his emotional baggage and the heavy responsibility he’s had all his life, a psychiatric ward worker begins to heal with help from the unexpected—a woman who writes fairy tales but doesn’t believe in them.
There’s still a taboo around addressing mental illness in Korea, which is one of the many reasons why this 2020 drama about Gang-tae, a young man who is a caregiver at a psychiatric hospital, and Moon-young, a children’s author living with antisocial personality disorder, made such a splash. While the romance at its center is great, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay really shines in its exploration of Gang-tae’s relationship with his brother, Sang-tae, who is on the autism spectrum. In a press conference promoting the show (via Metro Style), Sang-tae actor Oh Jung-se said of the character: “If you meet someone like Sang-tae, who is on the autism spectrum, on the street, I think it would be nice if people could think ‘I would like to be with that person’ instead of ‘I would like to help that person.’”
Boys Over Flowers (2009)
Unassuming high school girl Jan-di stands up to — and eventually falls for — a spoiled rich kid who belongs to the school’s most powerful clique.
A K-drama classic, Boys Over Flowers follows working class student Geum Jan-di as she arrives at the elite Shinhwa High School on scholarship, only to meet and be unimpressed by a group of privileged boys known collectively as F4 who rule the school. The drama follows Jan-di as she goes from bullying target of F4 leader Jun-pyo to the object of his obsession. It’s a classic enemies-to-lovers set-up, and one that while cliche, is still worth a watch over a decade later.
Itaewon Class (2020)
On the vibrant streets of Itaewon, something is about to shake up the local food scene. Going up against the most powerful conglomerate in the industry, underdog Park Sae-ro-yi and his band of determined misfits seek to take over Itaewon and turn their ambitious dreams into reality.
Korean TV knows how to melodrama, and this story of revenge and romance set in Seoul’s popular Itaewon area leans into intense catharsis. Itaewon Class follows Park Sae-Ro-Yi, the owner of an up-and-coming Itaewon restaurant called DanBam that becomes a refuge for a group of social outcasts. Together, they work to take down the same business mogul responsible for the death of Sae-Ro-Yi’s father years earlier. Itaewon Class was extremely popular both in South Korea and internationally, and featured the first transgender character in a mainstream K-drama. Added bonus: the Itaewon Class soundtrack includes an original song from BTS’ V.
Mr Sunshine (2018)
In 1905, a Korean American U.S. marine officer returns to his homeland on a diplomatic assignment. Coping with his painful past in Korea as an orphaned servant boy, he finds himself in a complicated relationship with an aristocrat’s daughter.
If you’re into historically-driven period drama, then check out the beautifully-shot Mr. Sunshine. The K-drama is set in the late 19th and early 20th century in Hanseong, the city that would become Seoul and follows activists fighting for Korea’s independence. The story follows Go Ae-shin, an orphaned noblewoman who trains to be a sniper in the Righteous Army, the civilian militia that fought against the occupying Japanese forces, and Eugene Choi, a man who escaped slavery in Korea to become a U.S. marine, only to return to his homeland where he falls in love with Ae-shin. The series uses real-life history, including Shinmiyangyo, the Spanish-American War, the assassination of Empress Myeongseong, the Russo-Japanese War, Gojong’s forced abdication, and the Battle of Namdaemun as a backdrop for its epic story.
A cold-case profiler in 2015 and a detective in 1989 work together to solve a series of related murders spanning three decades using a special walkie-talkie to communicate with each other.
This premise has been used a lot—from 2000 Dennis Quaid/Jim Caviezel thriller Frequency to the 2016 CW TV adaptation of the same name—and for good reason. An analog device allows two people to communicate across time, and they must work to solve a murder together. It not only makes for compelling character drama, as two people become closer but are separated by years, but also is a fresh twist on the serial killer narrative. In K-drama Signal, the analog device is a walkie-talkie, and the characters on either temporal side of it are contemporary criminal profiler Park Hae-young and 1989-based Detective Cha Soo-hyun. If you’re looking for a good crime thriller, Signal could be it.
Hospital Playlist (2020-present)
Friends since undergrad school, five doctors remain close and share a love for music while working at the same hospital.
Like Kingdom, Hospital Playlist is the rare K-drama that tells its story across multiple seasons. The hospital drama is currently airing its second season weekly on Netflix, continuing its story about a group of doctors in their 40s who have been best friends since medical school. A true ensemble drama, Hospital Playlist is perfect for fans of Grey’s Anatomy but feels unique in its centering of a friend-group with a such a long history.
If you just watched the dramatic opening of Vincenzo, set in Italy days after the death of a mafia boss, you might think you’re in for a self-serious organized crime drama. But the Netflix K-drama quickly shifts into a story much more tonally complex. Part romance, part drama, part action thriller, Vincenzo has something for everyone. It follows Vincenzo (Space Sweepers‘ Song Joong-ki), a Korean lawyer raised by an Italian mafia family who must flee the country following his father’s death. As part of his plan of escape, Vincenzo travels to Korea to recover a stash of hidden gold under an old apartment building set for demolition by a corrupt corporation called the Babel Group. Because of this dilemma, Vincenzo becomes unlikely allies with the group of eccentric citizens who live in the building, as well as with a passionate and moral lawyer who has a vendetta against the Babel Group for his own reasons.
The “Reply” Series (2012-2016)
Take a nostalgic trip back to the late 1980s through the lives of five families and their five teenage kids living in a small neighborhood in Seoul.
The Reply series is one of the most popular cable dramas in Korean TV history. It launched in 2012 with Reply 1997 before continuing with Reply 1994 in 2013 and Reply 1988 in 2015. The ambitiously-structured series follows a group of friends and their kids, telling the story in present-day in addition to flashbacks. Featuring a fun soundtrack, as well as some incredibly performances, the Reply series is well worth a watch for anyone who loves character drama with a nostalgic twist.
Prison Playbook (2017)
With only days before his major league baseball debut, pitcher Kim Je-hyeok unexpectedly lands himself behind bars. He must learn to navigate his new world with its own rules if he wants to survive.
Prison Playbook is much more slow-paced than many of the selections on the list, but this character drama is worth the dedication. Though it’s often touted as a “black comedy,” it’s much more tonally light than that suggests, despite the subject matter. The story follows baseball pitcher Kim Je Hyeok, who is incarcerated days before his major league debut for assaulting the attempted rapist of his sister. It follows his life within prison, along with the lives of some of the other inmates and guards, including his old best friend, Lt. Lee Joon Ho, who is a correctors officer. Created by Lee Woo-jung, who also made the aforementioned Reply series, Prison Playbook is one of the most popular K-dramas in Korean cable history ever.
Sweet Home (2020)
As humans turn into savage monsters, one troubled teenager and his neighbors fight to survive and to hold onto their humanity.
It’s been well-documented that Song Kang is a K-drama darling. The actor has appeared in many a romantic K-drama, including Netflix’s Nevertheless and Love Alarm. Sweet Home, however, is his rare horror appearance, and it’s well worth a watch just to see Song in a completely different context. Of course, this apocalyptic horror story has other qualities too, and holds the honor of being the first Korean series to enter the U.S. Netflix Top Ten. Based on a Naver (aka Korean Google) webcomic of the same name, Sweet Home follows Cha Hyun-soo (Song), a high school student who moves into an apartment building after the deaths of his parents, only to discover that the building also happens to be the home of a species of monsters set on world domination.
Speaking of Song Kang… At the time of this writing, Netflix is currently airing Nevertheless, the latest K-drama to star the 27-year-old actor. The romantic drama stars Han So-hee as Yoo Na-bi, university art student who no longer believes in love following discovering her boyfriend has been cheating on her. When she meets Song’s Park Jae-eon, she is immediately intrigued. Though the two share an immediate attraction, they resist entering into a relationship due to their respective uncertainties about love. Based on a popular webcomic of the same name, Nevertheless feels unique in its treatment of modern dating life in Korea, depicting some of the more realistic, often internal struggles of what its like to date in your 20s.
Memories of the Alhambra (2018)
If you’re looking for another K-drama starring Crash Landing on You‘s Hyun Bin (and of course you are), then look no further than Memories of the Alhambra, a 2018 K-drama with an absolutely batshit (read: amazing) premise. Hyun stars as Yoo Jin-woo, a CEO who travels to Spain in search of the creator of an AR game set in the Spanish medieval fortress Alhambra. Once there, Jin-woo is pulled into a reality-bending mystery with life-or-death stakes and some unpredictable twists that I don’t want to spoil for you.
Romance is a Bonus Book (2019)
A gifted writer who’s the youngest editor-in-chief ever at his publishing company gets enmeshed in the life of a former copywriter desperate for a job.
Ostensibly based on the TV series Younger, Romance is a Bonus Book is a rom-com set in the publishing industry world. It follows single mom Kang Dan Yi as she struggles to reenter the workforce following her divorce. When he lies about her background to get a job, her life becomes tangled up with childhood friend and publishing phenom Cha Eun Ho.
I began watching this series to see how it compared to the U.S. version of the show, of which I am a fan. Honestly, these two series have only the most superficial details of their plots in common, which is par for the course in many adaptations. Romance is a Bonus Book is much more romance-centric than Younger, which balances the love life of its central protagonist with the many other relationships and concerns she has in her life. But that isn’t a bad thing. They are two very different shows with their own interests and strengths, but if you’re a fan of both rom-coms and the publishing industry, then both Romance is a Bonus Book and Younger are worth a watch.
What is your favorite K-drama on Netflix? And what upcoming Netflix K-dramas are you most looking forward to? Let us know in the comments below?