Well-Earned Drama around Korean Dramas

Posted by Alex Florian & filed under Pop Culture, Television.


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What’s so great about K-Dramas?

Everything.  And their dramatic effects on areas far beyond the world of television serve as proof.

Sometimes known as Korean Soap Operas or Korean Dramas, K-dramas share only a name with North American soap operas.  They are in entirely different leagues.  They have stars, they have female leading roles, they have female script writers, they have credible actors, and yes, they have drama.  However, the drama feels real, based off human experience and not similarly accompanied by Days of our Lives-esque extended pauses and longing looks that literally last for days, or Young and the Restless-style relentless and overplayed sexual tension.

K-dramas are more like mini-series, on average running only 16 to 20 episodes.  In addition, they run primarily at night time to have a higher viewership but also replay during the day.  Their popularity is evident but definitely represented in the fame of their lead actors beyond the soap opera watching community.  For example, the male lead of Secret Garden, which aired from November 2010 to January 2011, is believed to have made 3.5 million US dollars for filming just six commercials and renewing some older commercial deals.  The dramas cover a range of subjects.  Some believe the subjects can be overplayed or predictable, but many also argue that the predictable plots still carry emotional weight and affect their audiences.  Some K-dramas educate.  Some break the expectations of what television can do.  But they are generally all well-made.

One blogger described a difference between American and Korean soap operas based on conservatism of values.  They wrote that because the US is more relaxed on issues such as divorce and sexual affairs these acts are thrown around to create extravagant drama.  Korean culture is less open in publicly discussing these issues, and therefore forms the drama of their shows on more natural forms of human relationships, making them more relatable and powerful.


The quality and popularity of Korean dramas is likely linked to foundation of a large budget.  In 1998, while lifting the ban on imports from former colonial ruler Japan, the South Korean government was concerned that a mass entrance of Japanese culture would ensue, especially since it was already popular along the black market.  To prevent this, the budget of the Ministry of Culture was raised by 30 billion over just a couple years.  And in 2002 the Korean Culture and Content Agency started exporting the shows and other cultural aspects, setting off the “Korean Wave”.


The term “hallyu” is also used in place of Korean wave and the terms originated in China from the phrase “flow of Korea”.  The Korean Wave started with the export of K-dramas, which were well received because of the currency exchange and relative cheapness in comparison to Japanese and other dramas.  The wave has expanded to Korean pop music, as well as an interest in other areas of culture, such as language and food.  It started as a regional spread, concentrated in Asia, but has crossed the ocean and now Korean dramas are available in North and South America on Netflix, Hulu and Viki.  In fact, on Canadian Netflix there are a variety of TV show types to choose from, including the basic crime and comedy, but only British and Korean TV are big enough (according to Netflix) to get their own separate ethnic based category.

The flow of the shows across borders has spread the culture and worked as a form of soft power.  By this I mean that it has broken down misconceptions of South Korean culture, showed other countries the similarities between cultures, and worked to gain the cooperation of other countries in two way shares of goods and ideas.  This soft power also works to prevent anti-Korean sentiment and future reunification with North Korea.  The Korean drama has taken TV by storm all over the world and had really great effects on international relations, outlining common community values.  Many North American bloggers share their experiences with being drawn to further develop their Korean language skills because they are so enthralled by K-dramas.


As the wave has flowed over Asia and technology becomes more convenient to transport, copies of K-dramas have been smuggled into North Korea.  According to a defector-run North Korean website, on November 3, 2013 there were 80 public executions simultaneously across seven cities for watching illicit South Korean TV dramas, pornography, or possessing bibles.


Most recently I watched Heirs or The Inheritors, and it aired Wednesdays and Thursdays on SBS this past winter, October to December.  Written by Kim Eun Sook, who also wrote The Secret Garden, Heirs stars Lee Min-ho, son of an extremely wealthy South Korean business man, and Park Shin-hye, who comes from a less-privileged family. Although they meet in American, the majority of the drama is set in South Korea where the story follows several different wealthy heirs, all of whom, despite seeming to have it all, struggle with their inheritances and romances.  I was surprised at how much I related to the actors and South Korean culture.  When Cha Eun Sang (Park Shin-hye) packs a big bag of her mother’s bean powder with her to America to give to her sister, it reminded me of how my Nonno sends his homemade baking or sausages along with me anytime I leave his house, and especially on a trip to visit family.  The issues of identity and feelings of belonging that these characters struggle with are borderless concepts  anyone can relate to.  I know I did.  A little romantic tension always gets me too.

What I preferred about this show, in comparison to American soaps is the fact that divorce and love affairs happen, but they aren’t thrown around dramatically in every episode.  The drama comes from the little moments of human connection.  I found it more akin to a North American nighttime soap, like 90210 for example, but still unique in it’s form and emotional power.  Heirs has won multiple awards and was broadcasted in 13 different countries on local channels.

When I hear the term “soap opera” I automatically think of over-dramatic pauses and poor quality day time television, but in Korea, that is not the case.  Often centered around women struggling out of some sort of hole, K-dramas have similarly pushed South Korea out into view of the rest of the world.  They have worked to bring people together within South Korea and have had soft but hugely influential power in benefiting international relations as well.  The fact that so many different countries and cultures are captivated by these productions is testament to their quality.  If you haven’t watched a K-drama yet, I strongly suggest you get on the bandwagon and give one a shot.

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