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), K-drama or KD's for short, refers to televised dramas in 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, as well, 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, as well, for example Jewel in the Palace (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, also in foreign countries, like China.[1][2]
Ha Ji-won starred in several famous Korean dramas, like Damo or Secret Garden

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, Jewel in the Palace, Dong Yi, 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 around a love story, with family ties and relationships being in the focus, but there are no complicated plot lines or hidden messages like in Japanese dramas. Plots often are driven with the help of unexpected events like accidents, kidnappings or fatal diseases. Characters are mostly idealised, with Korean male protagonists described as handsome, intelligent, emotional, 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 (e.g. the tough protagonists of Chinese martial arts films).[3][7][8][9]

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

Most 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, around 30% in Korean.[13] After the Korean War, radio dramas such as Cheongsilhongsil (1954) reflected the country's mood.[14]

Televsision 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 (sageuk) aired was Gukto manri (국토만리), directed by Kim Jae-hyeong (김재형), depicting the Goryeo era.[6][18] In the '60s, television sets were of limited availability, thus dramas could not reach a larger audience.[19]

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, one of the influential series was Kim Soo-hyun's 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]

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

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] which 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 sageuk 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 Si-ra and Choi Jae-seong. 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 Sanglass in 1995. Sanglass was a "trendy drama", which the Korean Culture and Information Service considers as an important milestone, having changed the way K-*dramas are made, introducing a new format.[23] In this decade, the new miniseries format became wide-spread, 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]


Korean series used to be produced by the television channels themselves, in the 21st century, however, they are usually outsourced to independent production companies. 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]

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

The budget of the production is shared between the producing company and the broadcaster. The broadcasting channel usually covers around 50% of expenses, in case of employing top stars and famous scriptwriters, they may cover even more. The rest of the budget has to be brought in by the production company, with the help of sponsors, whose names are featured in the ending rolls. 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 South Korean won. A typical Korean drama may cost as much as 250 million won per episode, and sageuks (historical dramas) cost more than that. For example, Gu Family Book cost 500 million won per episode.[25] Kim Jong-hak producer spent as much as 10 billion won 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, at times they may take up as much as 55-65% of the whole budget, while – in comparison – in Japan it is 20-30%, and roughly 10% in the USA.[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 case of series made by smaller production companies for cabel 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 won per episode,[29] Bae Yong-jun, the star of Winter Sonata reportedly received 250 million won 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 couple of hours before daily shooting, and sometimes the crew might only get a couple of 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 on location, 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 used to send two tapes to the channels (one as a backup copy), however, now due to tight filming schedules, a 70 minute episode might arrive to 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. This is the reason why during the airing of Episode 19 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 (saeguk), 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]

International reception[edit]


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.[42] NHK even hosted a classical concert featuring Winter Sonata's melodic tunes performed by Korean musicians. Actor Bae Yong Joon, who played the male lead in Winter Sonata, is known as "Yon-sama".[42]

Some have claimed that Korean drama has improved relations between the two countries as more Japanese people became interested in Korean culture. Greater exposure to all things Korean, including language, cuisine, and history not only positively influenced the perception of Koreans among Japanese people, but also relieved some of the antagonism many Koreans had felt towards Japan. The increased interest in Korean culture has promoted Japanese tourism to South Korea and many tours geared towards fans of Winter Sonata and other Korean drama programs have attracted thousands of visitors to the country. 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.[43][44][45]

Former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi has been known to be a big fan of Choi Ji Woo, known as "Jiwoo-hime" or "Princess Ji-woo" in Japan.[citation needed] The former Japanese first lady Miyuki Hatoyama, wife of former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, has often proclaimed her love of Korean drama, even claiming that it is the secret to her youthful appearance.[46]


Korean drama have gained huge attentions from kurds majority of Kurdish tv station broadcast a daily 60 minute episode,some channels show two different Korean soap opera due to the huge demand.


In 2006, South Korean programs on Chinese government TV networks accounted for more than all other foreign programs combined.[47]


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 Mizoram Nagaland Kolkata and Tamil Nadu copy the hairstyles and clothes of the Korean actors.[48][49] Now-a-days they are popular in Tamil Nadu, Assam,Orissa, Mumbai, New Delhi,Bangalore, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala too. Korean Dramas are also popular among K-Pop & Anime fans. Also as a part of cultural exchange Indian Public Broadcaster i.e. DDNational telecasted Emperor of the Sea and Jewel in the palace.


When the popular drama of Dae Jang Geum was on the air in Thailand, Korean food started gaining wide popularity in Thailand.[citation needed] Due to 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.[50]


Popular Korean dramas have become a rising hit in Singapore in the recent years. Prime 12 (now known as Suria) originally aired the only Korean drama series Sandglass in 1996 on a weekly basis (mostly on a Sunday or selected weekdays). Since 2001, Korean dramas are now shown on Chinese language channel MediaCorp Channel U on a daily basis. Here are a detailed List of programmes broadcast by MediaCorp Channel U.

The top 30 popular Korean dramas in Singapore including "May Queen," "Rooftop Prince," "Faith," "The King 2hearts," "A Gentleman's Dignity," "My Girlfriend is a Gumiho."[51] over the recent years.


Asian dramas, including Korean, have become hits in the 2000s. GMA Network has aired a score of dramas, including Full House. Joey Abacan, GMA Network vice president for Program Management, says Filipinos love Koreanovelas because they can relate to the stories: "Filipinos love drama and stories that we can relate to. Most of the time, the Korean dramas are quite escapist and moving. Aside from the touching plotlines, the production is really a visual experience of places that most of us are not accustomed to seeing,".

Top 10 Top Korean Dramas (By Average): 1. Full House (GMA, 2005) 42.3% 2. Stairway to Heaven (GMA, 2005) 36.1% 3. Jewel in the Palace (GMA, 2006) 35.4% 4. My Name is Kim Sam Soon (GMA, 2006) 34.9% 5. Lovers in Paris (ABS-CBN, 2004) 34.4% 6. Only You (ABS-CBN, 2006) 33.6% 7. Autumn in my Heart (GMA, 2003) 33.4% 8. Winter Sonata (GMA, 2003) 33.0% 9. Jumong (GMA, 2007) 32.7% 10. Love Story in Harvard (GMA, 2008) 32.4% [52]

Knowing more about Korean dramas in the Philippines, see Korean drama of the Philippines.

North America[edit]

Since Korean drama programming is publicly available in areas with ethnic Koreans, k-dramas are obviously popular in the United States in those regions.

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.[53] 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 many languages. It also streams English-subtitled versions of the most popular current dramas within a few days of their broadcast in South Korea.

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.

North Korea[edit]

Watching films or TV dramas from South Korea is a serious offence in North Korea.

Notable dramas[edit]

For more details on this topic, see List of South Korean dramas.

Notable actors[edit]

For more details on this topic, see List of South Korean actors.

References in other media[edit]

The format was parodied in MADtv with Bobby Lee and Korean American guest-stars Sung Kang and Cathy Shim. Korean drama clichés also appear in a comedic way, including the camera set-up style, constant replayed clips, melodramatic music, and the tragic love triangle. The MADtv parody also features exaggerated English "subtitles", which are relevant to the plot, but do not actually translate the Korean words spoken that are actually irrelevant to the plot, satirizing the incorrect and exaggerated subtitles found on some foreign-language films and TV shows.

See also[edit]


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