Korean drama

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The site of MBC Dramia, where dramas for Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation are produced

Korean drama (Hangul: 한국드라마; RR: hanguk deurama) or K-drama refers to televised dramas in the Korean language, made in South Korea, mostly in a miniseries format, with distinctive features that set it apart from regular Western television series or soap operas. Korean dramas can be set in contemporary times or in historical settings, the Korean word for the latter being sageuk (사극). Different genres apply to these two types, from romantic comedies and action series to fusion science fiction dramas.

South Korea started to broadcast television series in the 1960s. Today's mini deurama format of 12–24 episodes started in the 1990s, transforming traditional historical series to this format and creating the notion of "fusion sageuks". Korean dramas are usually shot within a very tight schedule, often a few hours before actual broadcast. Screenplays are flexible and may change anytime during production, depending on viewers' feedback, putting actors in a difficult position. Production companies often have financial issues.

Korean dramas are popular worldwide, partially due to the spread of the Korean wave, with streaming services that offer multiple language subtitles. Some of the most famous dramas have been broadcast via traditional television channels; for example, Dae Jang Geum (2003) was sold to 91 countries.


Kim Soo-hyun at the press conference of Moon Embracing the Sun. Kim is one of the most popular Korean actors.[1][2]

Korean dramas are usually helmed by one director and written by one screenwriter, thus having a distinct directing style and language, unlike American television series, where often several directors and writers work together.[3] Series are likely to have only one season, with 12–24 episodes. Historical series (sageuk[4]) may be longer, with 50 to 200 episodes, but they also run for only one season.

The broadcast time for flagship dramas is 22:00 to 23:00, with episodes on two consecutive nights: Mondays and Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and weekends. Different dramas appear on each of the nationwide networks, Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS), Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) and on the cable channels, Joongang Tongyang Broadcasting Company (jTBC), Channel A, tvN, and Orion Cinema Network (OCN).

The 19:00 to 20:00 evening time slot is usually for daily dramas that run from Monday through Friday. Dramas in these slots are in the telenovella format, rarely running over 200 episodes. Unlike the American soap operas, these daily dramas are not also scheduled during the day-time. Instead, the day-time schedule often includes reruns of the flagship dramas. The night-time dailies can achieve very high ratings. For example, the evening series Temptation of a Wife peaked at 40.6%, according to TNS Korea.[5]

Sageuk series[edit]

Traditional historical series tend to be long, very detailed and may likely contain archaic language, covering wars, concentrating on kings, famous military leaders or political intrigues. These series are mostly favoured by older people. At the beginning of the 2000s "fusion sageuk" was introduced, where colorful historical backgrounds were combined with modern drama making techniques, occasionally mixing the plot with fantasy, romance, action or science fiction, attracting younger generations. Famous fusion sageuks include Hur Jun, Damo, Hwang Jini, Dong Yi, Dae Jang Geum, Tamra Island, Chuno or Moon Embracing the Sun.[4][6]

Contemporary series[edit]

Series set in contemporary times usually run for one season, for 12−24 episodes of 60 minutes. They are often centered on a love story, with family ties and relationships being in the focus. Characters are mostly idealised, with Korean male protagonists described as handsome, intelligent, emotional, and ready to love one woman for a lifetime. This has also been a contributing factor to the popularity of Korean dramas among women, as the image of Korean men became different from that of other Asian men.[3][7][8][9]

The daily dramas are also usually set in contemporary times, describing a family conflict or family relationships, centered on Korean women, who sacrifice themselves for family happiness.[10]

Some popular contemporary dramas include Winter Sonata, My Lovely Sam Soon, The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince, Full House, Boys Over Flowers, Iris, Secret Garden and My Love From the Star.[11][12]


Radio broadcasting, including the broadcasting of radio dramas in Korea, began in 1927 under Japanese rule, with most programming in Japanese and around 30% in Korean.[13] After the Korean War, radio dramas such as Cheongsilhongsil (1954) reflected the country's mood.[14]

Television broadcasting began in 1956 with the launch of an experimental station, HLKZ-TV, which was shut down a few years later due to a fire. The first national television channel was Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), which started up in 1961.[15] The first Korean television film was a 15-minute piece titled The Gate of Heaven (천국의 문, Cheongugui mun), on HLKZ-TV.[16]

The first television series was aired by KBS in 1962. Their commercial competitor, TBC, had a more aggressive program policy and aired controversial dramas as well.[17] The first historical TV series aired was Gukto manri (국토만리), directed by Kim Jae-hyeong (김재형), depicting the Goryeo era.[6][18] In the 1960s, television sets were of limited availability, thus dramas could not reach a larger audience.[19]

Chae Shi-ra, the leading actress of Eyes of Dawn

In the 1970s, television sets started to spread among the general population, and dramas switched from portraying dramatic historical figures to introducing national heroes like Lee Sun-shin or Sejong the Great.[19] Contemporary series dealt with personal sufferings, such as Kim Soo-hyun's influential Stepmother (새엄마, Saeeomma), aired by Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) in 1972 and 1973.[20] As technology and funding was limited, Korean channels could not make series in resource-heavy genres like action and science fiction; American and other foreign series were imported instead.[21]

The 1980s saw a turn in Korean television, as color TV became available. Modern dramas tried to evoke nostalgia from urban dwellers by depicting rural life. Kim Soo-hyun's first real commercial success, Love and Ambition (사랑과 야망, Saranggwa yamang), aired on MBC in 1987 is regarded as a milestone of Korean television,[22] having recorded a 78% viewership. "Streets became quiet at around the airing time of the drama as 'practically everyone in the country' was at home in front of the TV", according to The Korea Times.[14] The most outstanding classical historical series of the era is considered to be 500 Years of Joseon (조선왕조500년, Joseonwangjo 500 nyeon), a serial that ran for eight years, consisting of 11 separate series. The serial was produced by Lee Byung-hoon, who later directed one of the biggest international successes of Korean drama, Dae Jang Geum.[6][19][22]

The 1990s brought another important milestone for Korean television. As technology developed, new opportunities arose, and the beginning of the decade marked the launch of a new commercial channel; Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS), which facilitated and re-initiated a race for catching viewers' attention.[23] The first real commercial success among Korean television series was Eyes of Dawn (여명의 눈동자, Yeomyeongui nundongja), aired in 1991 by MBC, starring Chae Shi-ra and Choi Jae-sung. The series led the viewers through turbulent times from the Japanese rule to the Korean War.[23] New channel SBS also produced successful series, one of them being Sandglass in 1995. Sandglass was a "trendy drama", which the Korean Culture and Information Service considers an important milestone, having changed the way Korean dramas are made by introducing a new format.[23] In this decade, the new miniseries format became widespread, with 12 to 24 episodes.[24] This era marked the start of export for Korean dramas, setting off the Korean wave.

The beginning years of the 2000s gave birth to a new genre, called "fusion sageuk", essentially changing the ways to produce historical series, with such successful pieces like Hur Jun, Damo or Dae Jang Geum.[6]


Lee Seung-gi, of Gu Family Book is considered a top star

Korean series were originally produced by the television channels themselves, but have been outsourced to independent production companies since the 2000s. In 2012, as much as 75% of all K-dramas were produced this way. Competition is fierce among these companies; out of 156 registered firms, only 34 produced dramas that were actually aired in 2012.[25] The budget of the production is shared between the producing company and the broadcaster. The broadcasting channel usually covers around 50% of expenses. If top stars and famous scriptwriters are employed, they may cover even more. The rest of the budget has to be brought in by the production company with the help of sponsors. In case of product placements, incomes are shared by the producer and the channel. The channel keeps 100% of the advertisement income during airtime; this could amount to 300-400 million. A typical Korean drama may cost as much as ₩250 million per episode, and historical dramas cost more than that. For example, Gu Family Book cost ₩500 million per episode.[25] Kim Jong-hak producer spent as much as ₩10 billion on Faith, which was considered a commercial failure, resulting in the inability of Kim paying crew salaries and other due payments. Kim, who produced such successful dramas, like Eyes of Dawn and Sandglass, committed suicide after he was accused with embezzlement.[26][27]

In Korea, much of the budget is spent on top star appearance fees. In some cases, the actors may take up as much as 55-65% of the whole budget, while it is 20-30% in Japan and roughly 10% in the United States.[25] Everything else, including salaries of lesser-known actors, extras, and technical staff, location rent and other expenses, have to be covered from the remaining amount. Often, production companies overrun their budgets and cannot pay salaries. In 2012, actors were holding a demonstration in front of the headquarters of KBS, expressing their concerns. Actors are usually paid after the last episode is aired at the end of the month. In series made by smaller production companies for cable channels, there were cases when the companies went bankrupt and could not pay their actors and crew, while the channel relegated all responsibilities of payment to the bankrupt production firm.[28] The biggest stars may earn as much as ₩100 million per episode.[29] Bae Yong-joon, the star of Winter Sonata reportedly received ₩250 million per episode for The Legend in 2007.[25]


As producing a series involves high expenses, production companies seek to shoot the episodes in the shortest time possible. In contrast to practices elsewhere, the first four episodes of Korean series are usually shot in advance, but the rest are shot continuously as the series is being aired. Scripts are not finished in advance, and may change according to viewer feedback and viewership ratings. These changes may occur a few hours before daily shooting, and the crew might receive only a few ready pages. The production usually works with three camera crews, who work in a rotating manner to speed up filming. Because of unregulated script changes and tight shooting schedules, actors are almost continuously on standby, and have no time to leave the set or sleep properly. The Korean media have a separate word to describe irregular, short sleeps that actors resort to, in often uncomfortable positions, or within the set: jjok-jam (쪽잠), or "side-sleeping". Dramas usually air with two episodes a week, which have to be shot within that week. Some Korean actors have admitted to receiving IV therapy during filming, due to extreme schedules and exhaustion.[28][29][30]

Production teams originally sent two tapes to the channels; a primary copy and a backup copy. However, due to the tight filming schedules, a 70-minute episode might arrive at the broadcasting station on seven separate tapes in ten-minute installments. It happens that while the episode is being broadcast, the crew would be still shooting the last minutes or cutting the rest of the episode. During the airing of the nineteenth episode of Man from the Equator, screens countrywide went black for 10 minutes. Actor Kwon Sang-woo was openly complaining that he was still shooting Queen of Ambition 30 minutes before the last episode began airing.[28] In South Korea some production teams still do planning and scheduling manually, instead of using dedicated software.[31]

The larger broadcasting companies have their own dedicated shooting locations for historical dramas, with extensive and elaborate sets. MBC's series are shot at MBC Dramia in Gyeonggi,[32] while KBS dramas utilise the Mungyeongsaejae Studio (문경새재 KBS촬영장) in North Gyeongsang[33] and their studio in Suwon.[34]



Some of the leading actors of Korean dramas have become popular outside of South Korea, as well, due to the Korean wave. First wave stars include:[35]

Stars of the younger generation include:[35]

In the 2000s, it became customary to cast popular K-pop idols in dramas. Their critical reception is mixed, however, some of them became successful as actors, including:[35][40]

Scriptwriters and directors[edit]

Director Pyo Min-soo

Scriptwriters and directors of Korean dramas are often as well known as actors are. An overwhelming majority of scriptwriters (90% according to the Beijing Metro Reader) are women, who not only write love stories but action series, as well.[42] Compared to Korean cinema, television is more appealing for scriptwriters, as contract conditions are better, acknowledgment is greater, and the salary is higher. Famous scriptwriters tend to have a say in their field.[43] The most well-known scriptwriters include the Hong Sisters, who wrote popular series like You're Beautiful and Master's Sun; Kim Eun-sook, the screenwriter of Lovers in Paris and Secret Garden; Lee Kyung-hee, famous for A Love to Kill and The Innocent Man; male writer Choi Wan-kyu of Midas and Triangle; Noh Hee-kyung, the author of That Winter, The Wind Blows; or Park Ji-eun, who wrote My Love From the Star and My Husband Got a Family.[44]

Acknowledged TV directors include Lee Byung-hoon, who directed Dae Jang Geum and Yi San;[6] Kim Jong-hak, the director of Eyes of Dawn, and Sandglass;[45] and Pyo Min-soo, the director of Full House and Iris II.[46] While scriptwriters are mostly women, directors are usually men.[47] Some female directors rose to prominence, like Lee Na-jeong (이나정), who directed The Innocent Man,[48] or Lee Yun-jeong (이윤정), whose most famous work is The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince. The latter director is also the first female television producer employed by Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC).[49]


Music plays an important role in Korean dramas. Original soundtracks, abbreviated OST, are explicitly made for each series, and in contrast to American series, fans have a need to buy the soundtrack album of dramas. This trend started in the 1990s, when producers swapped purely instrumental soundtracks for songs performed by popular K-pop singers. Tom Larsen, director of YA Entertainment, a distributor of Korean TV series, thinks that Korean soundtracks are polished enough musically to be considered standalone hits.[50]

During the 2000s, it became customary for lead actors to participate in original soundtracks, also partially due to the employment of K-pop stars as actors. Actor Lee Min-ho, and leader of boy band SS501, Kim Hyun-joong both recorded songs for Boys Over Flowers, while actor Jang Keun-suk and singer Lee Hong-gi of F.T. Island sang for You're Beautiful.[51]

OST songs of popular K-dramas can also become hits on regular music charts, with good sales of both physical and digital albums. Songs from the OST of Secret Garden, for example, had high digital sales and high rankings on music charts.[52] My Destiny, performed by Lyn for My Love from the Star, led music charts in Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and other Asian countries.[53] It also won the Best OST award at the 2014 Baeksang Arts Awards.[54] Performers of OST songs for action series Iris held two concerts in Japan in front of an audience of 60,000 people.[55]

OST composers usually look for singers who have previously had success in the genre. Songs are written to reflect the mood of the series and their structure. Sometimes performers give their own songs for a series. For example, Baek Ji-young thought her song That Man, originally written for her own album, would fit Secret Garden. There are popular OST singers who are often employed, like Baek Ji-young, Lyn Seung-cheol, and Lee Seung-cheol.[56] Rarely, foreign singers are invited to perform songs for Korean OST. For instance, Swedish artist Lasse Lindh sang several songs for series like Angel Eyes, Soul Mate and I Need Romance.[57]

Rating system[edit]

For more details on this topic, see Television content rating systems § South Korea.

The television rating system is regulated by the Korea Communications Commission, and was implemented in 2000. According to the system, programs, including Korean dramas, are rated according to the following principles (ratings irrelevant to dramas are omitted):[58]

  • Republic_Of_Korea_Broadcasting-TV_Rating_System(12).svg: programs that may be inappropriate for children under 12, like mild violence, themes or language.
  • Republic_Of_Korea_Broadcasting-TV_Rating_System(15).svg: programs that may be inappropriate for children under 15. Most dramas and talk shows are rated this way. These programs may include moderate or strong adult themes, language, sexual inference, and violence.
  • Republic_Of_Korea_Broadcasting-TV_Rating_System(19).svg: programs intended for adults only. These programs might include adult themes, sexual situations, frequent use of strong language and disturbing scenes of violence.


According to a researcher at the University of Vienna, popularity of Korean dramas have their foundation in Confucian values they transmit, which Asian viewers can easily identify with. Respect for elders, filial piety, family-orientedness, and the display of perceived "Asian moral values" play an important role in Korean series.[59] YA Entertainment, the American distributor of Korean dramas, believes that part of the attractiveness of these series come from the quality of camera work, scenic locations, and spectacular costumes, which make the "final product is very stylish and attractive, with arguably some of the highest TV production values in the world."[60] Korean series follow their own formula, are innovative and don't conform to Western television productions.[60] Stephan Lee from Entertainment Weekly called Korean dramas "fascinating and weirdly comforting".[61]

Exports of Korean series yielded US$37.5 million in 2003, which was three times higher than the amount reached in 1999.[62] According to data from Korea Creative Content Agency, in 2013 K-dramas constituted 82% of the culture content export of South Korea, with an income of $167 million, which is four times more than a decade before.[31]

International reception[edit]

See also: Korean wave


In the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, Korean dramas and entertainment have gained popularity particularly amongst youth. Prior to interest in Korean entertainment, Bollywood had largely been the most popular form of entertainment in the country. When the Bhutanese film industry launched in the mid 1990s Bollywood was the only form of influence on the industry. However, in recent years Korean entertainment has managed to make significant inroads in the country and influence the entertainment industry alongside Bollywood. Korean entertainment has managed to influence fashion and many video shops now sell Korean dramas and movies alongside Bollywood films. The interest in Korean entertainment has also led to controversy with older generations voicing their concern that Korean entertainment will deteriorate Bhutanese culture and traditions.[63][64]

The first Korean drama to be broadcast in Cambodia was Winter Sonata, it was however Full House that launched the interest in Korean dramas and entertainment in the country. Following the success of Full House more Korean dramas have been dubbed into the Khmer language. Korean dramas have become popular particularly amongst youth in Cambodia.[65]

In China, South Korean programs on Chinese government TV networks accounted for more than all other foreign programs combined in 2006.[66] Hong Kong has its own channel for airing Korean dramas, TVB J2, but ATV also airs Korean series in prime-time slots.[67]

Korean dramas have become popular in India, particularly in Manipur, where Hindi films and TV serials were banned in 2000. As a result, local television stations began broadcasting subtitled Korean dramas instead. Many young people in Northeast India, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu copy the hairstyles and clothes of Korean actors.[68][69] As a part of cultural exchange, Indian Public Broadcaster telecasted Emperor of the Sea and Dae Jang Geum.[70] Korean dramas also air in the Tamil language in Tamil Nadu on Puthuyugam TV.[71]

In Indonesia, Korean dramas have gained popularity and the popular Korean dramas, Winter Sonata and Endless Love were aired on Surya Citra Media in 2002. Some Korean dramas have also been remade into Indonesian versions such as Demi Cinta in 2005 which was a remake of the popular drama Autumn in My Heart and Cinta Sejati, a remake of Stairway to Heaven. RCTI and Indosiar are examples of Indonesian television networks that air Korean dramas.[72][73]

The first Korean drama to gain widespread popularity in Japan was Winter Sonata, which was broadcast on the NHK satellite channel NHK BS2 in 2003. The program was aired twice in the same year due to high demand from viewers.[9] NHK also hosted a classical concert featuring Winter Sonata's tunes performed by Korean musicians.[9] Korean dramas boost tourism between Korea and Japan,[9] and is considered a possible way of improving strained relationships between the two countries, as series have become increasingly popular with Japanese viewers.[74][75] Conversely, the series Iris had several pivotal scenes shot in Akita, Japan, which led to an increase of Korean tourists in that part of Japan.[76][77][78]

In Malaysia, Winter Sonata began airing on TV3 in 2003, which started an interest in Korean pop culture in the country. Dae Jang Geum and Autumn In My Heart were also aired in Malaysia. The popularity of Korean dramas have resulted in a positive reception of Korean expatriates in Malaysia.[79]

Korean dramas have become popular in the Maldives especially amongst youth and are broadcast on numerous television networks in the country.[80]

In Mongolia, Korean dramas are popular and are broadcast at prime time. Dae Jang Geum was a very popular drama in the country and was broadcast five times due to this. Autumn in My Heart, Winter Sonata and Stairway to Heaven were other popular dramas. Popularity in Korean dramas has resulted in interest in the learning of the Korean language as well as Mongolians travelling to South Korea. Popularity in Korean dramas has also lead to increased mutually cooperative relations between Mongolia and South Korea.[81]

In Myanmar, the K-drama Autumn in My Heart was broadcast in the country in 2001, this lead to interest in Korean entertainment. When Dae Jang Geum was on air the drama sparked an interest in Korean cuisine in the country.[82]

Interest for Korean dramas in Nepal began when Winter Sonata aired on Kantipur Television Network in the mid-2000s. This lead to the popularity of other K-dramas such as Boys Over Flowers, Autumn In My Heart, and Full House to name a few. Popularity of Korean media products has also lead to interest of learning the Korean language and has resulted in the emergence of Korean language tutorials that air on ABC Television in the country. Korean dramas have become quite popular amongst Nepali youth and markets are often frequented by teenagers looking to buy the latest dramas.[83]

Watching films or TV dramas from South Korea is a serious offence in North Korea, punishable by execution,[84] but people still manage to acquire them on CDs and DVDs.[85]

In Singapore, Prime 12 (now known as Suria) originally aired the only Korean drama series Sandglass in 1996 on a weekly basis. Since 2001, Korean dramas are shown on Chinese language channel MediaCorp Channel U daily.[86]

In Sri Lanka, the Independent Television Network aired Full House in 2009 and it proved popular. Dae Jang Geum aired on Rupavahini in 2012 and was dubbed in Sinhala under the title Sujatha Diyani (සුජාත දියණී), meaning "The Pure, Valuable Daughter". The Independent Television Network, Rupavahini, TV Derana and Swarnavahini air Korean dramas some of which have included, Yi San and Sungkyunkwan Scandal which aired under the title Asaliya Mala (අසලියා මල).[87][88]

In Taiwan, Korean dramas are very popular and according to the South Korean mission 120 K-dramas had been broadcast in Taiwan in the first half of 2011.[89]

When Dae Jang Geum was on air in Thailand, Korean food started gaining wide popularity.[90] Due to the lop-sided nature of entertainment exports favoring South Korea, the Thai government requested increased introduction of popular Thai films to South Korean media outlets. This led to the signing of an Agreement of Cultural Cooperation between the two countries in August 2004.[91]

North America[edit]

In November 2008, Netflix began offering several Korean dramas as part of its video selection. In August 2009, DramaFever began offering free subtitled video streaming service, with video advertisements, in the United States.[92] As of May 2010, Korean dramas began airing on a DramaFever channel on Hulu.

Viki streams most of the popular dramas from the last few years, with subtitles in 70 languages.[93]

Additionally, Korean dramas are available at online DVD retailers. Some Korean dramas, however, are not available for region 1 (North America) encoding and NTSC video format. Amazon offers streaming of Winter Sonata for a fee.[94]

KBFD-DT in Honolulu, Hawaii broadcasts a majority of Korean dramas on its daily schedule, as well as offering the programs on sale at its website and on demand through its K-Life channel on Oceanic Time Warner Cable. Another Honolulu outlet, KFVE devotes three hours of its Sunday afternoon schedule to Korean dramas.

Viewership ratings[edit]

Viewership ratings are provided by two companies in South Korea, AGB Nielsen Media Research and TNmS. Originally Media Service Korea was the only company providing such information, and it was later acquired by Nielsen Media Research. In 1999 TNS Media Korea also began such service, and later changed its name to TNmS. AGB collects viewership data based on 2050 households, while TNmS has 2000 households with measuring devices. Drama ratings usually vary between the two companies by 2-3%.[95]

Korean dramas with the highest views of all time[edit]

Korean dramas with the highest views of all time
# Drama Channel Viewership Date
1. First Love KBS2 65.8% 20 April 1997
2. What is Love MBC 64.9% 24 May 1992
3. Sandglass SBS 64.5% 6 February 1995
4. Hur Jun MBC 63.7% 27 June 2000
5. Sunny Place of Youth KBS2 62.7% 12 November 1995
6. You and I MBC 62.4% 12 April 1998
7. The Son and the Daughter MBC 61.1% 21 March 1993
8. Taejo Wang Geon KBS 60.2% 20 May 2001
9. Eyes of Dawn MBC 58.4% 6 February 1992
10. Dae Jang Geum MBC 57.8% 23 March 2004

The list was compiled from data by AGB Nielsen Media Research, based on the episode of the highest viewership since 1992, when AGB Nielsen entered the Korean market.[96]

See also[edit]


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