11 Popular Korean Dramas To Binge-Watch On Netflix In 2021
With the rise of Korean pop-culture including K-pop thanks to BTS and Blackpink and Korean movies due to Parasite's landslide win at the Oscars, there's no stopping the release of more Korean dramas, music, films, skincare brands, designers and food.
If you're not yet on board the K-drama train, you might be missing out on some of the best shows to watch on Netflix. But it's not too late to join in the fun and find out why this has taken the world by storm. Lucky for us, Netflix just keeps adding more and more K-drama titles to their line-up. There's just something undeniably addicting about K-dramas, be it the swoon-worthy leads, the diverse list of genres and narratives, the life lessons it teaches us or just the escape it gives us from reality–which feels like something we need during this pandemic.
From romance, historical series to action-packed titles, we're listing the most popular K-dramas to binge-watch on Netflix.
See also: 10 Japanese Dramas To Watch On Netflix
1/11 Crash Landing on You
This romantic series reinvigorated—or jumpstarted, in the case of some audiences—the K-drama mania. Released on tvN in South Korea and on Netflix worldwide, Crash Landing On You drew in a strong viewership, making it the third highest-rated Korean drama in television history.
Its premise is a strange one: Yoon Se-ri (Son Ye-jin), a wealthy South Korean heiress, ends up paragliding into North Korean territory after a tornado blows her off course. This sends her crash landing—literally—into the arms of Ri Jeong-hyeok (Hyun Bin), a captain in the North Korean Special Police Force.
Aside from its well-executed romantic plot and stellar ensemble cast performance, the drama also received high praise for its portrayal of everyday life in the North, showing a cultural aspect of the country rarely explored in any fictional capacity. The chemistry of the RiRi couple, as they're called, also drew a massive following. The wish of their loyal fans have come true—Hyun Bin and Son Ye-jin's romance officially went from reel to real.
2/11 Itaewon Class
Based on the webtoon of the same name, this underdog revenge story focuses on Park Sae-ro-yi (Park Seo-joon), a young man whose quiet life changes after he gets expelled from school for getting into a fight with a classmate (who is the heir apparent to franchise giant Jangga Group). Earning the ire of its CEO Jang Dae-hee (Yoo Jae-myung), Sae-ro-yi is forced to carry out a three-year prison sentence. His dogged determination propels him forward with a new dream: to open his very own restaurant-bar in the cuisine-rich Itaewon district in hopes of one day eclipsing Jangga Group’s success.
Heartwarming at its core, Itaewon Class allows audiences a closer glimpse of the South Korean F&B industry culture while exploring themes around social class, racial discrimination, and gender-related issues, which are handled with care through the interactions of its core cast. The inclusion of these themes furthers the conversation on the issues, some of which are rarely talked about in Korean society. It also inspires us not to give up on our dreams, no matter how society puts us on the sidelines.
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All top student Oh Ji-soo (Kim Dong-hee) wants is to get into university, but because he was abandoned by his parents, earning enough money to do so becomes a struggle. And so he turns to a life of crime as a security service provider for an illegal business under the name “Uncle,” with “Old Man” Lee Whang-chul (Choi Min-soo) as his man on the ground and muscle for hire. Business goes smoothly until Bae Gyu-ri (Park Joo-hyun), a classmate of Ji-soo, steals his business phone and taunts him with blackmail.
While Ji-soo is getting by thanks to his entrepreneurial spirit, he is no hero as he is breaking the law to ensure his own survival. His classmates—many of whom look down on him—are no better, as they themselves are caught up in their own dishonest businesses. Much darker than the usual teen-oriented K-dramas, Extracurricular is a brazen yet sober deep-dive into the moral failings of its young cast.
It also provides a glimpse into the struggles that many young people in South Korea face, encapsulated the popular term they often used, "Hell Joseon", criticising the socio-economic situation of the country such as unemployment and working conditions.
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This fantasy drama first aired in 2016, but is still beloved to this day—so much so that it has reached cult favourite status in and out of South Korea. So much so that the locations where parts of the show were shot has cultivated a "Goblin location pilgrimage" among its followers.
Gong Yoo stars as Kim Shin, the titular goblin and a decorated military general from the Goryeo Dynasty. Framed as a traitor and cursed to remain immortal, he lives a lonely existence, waiting for the day when his bride will come to pull out the sword buried in his chest to end his life. Nine hundred years later, he meets a high schooler named Ji Eun-tak (Kim Go-eun), who claims to be his sought-after bride. Kim Shin also finds himself in the company of a nameless ex-grim reaper (Lee Dong-wook), who doesn’t remember anything from his former life.
A perfect K-drama for the true blue romantics, Goblin highlights the value of friendship as well, with many audiences enjoying the bromance between Kim Shin and his grim reaper buddy. It's also well-loved for its stunning cinematography, with scenes filmed in Quebec as well as its very emotional soundtrack and undeniable chemistry of its whole cast.
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The zombie apocalypse trope has been repeatedly tried, tested, and even overused, but this political horror thriller has taken it to new heights. Set during Korea’s Joseon period, Kingdom follows the story of Crown Prince Li Chang (Ju Ji-hoon), who finds himself caught in a political conspiracy as he begins to investigate the circumstances surrounding his mysteriously ill father. As his shocking discoveries urge him to travel around in search of more concrete explanations, he crosses paths with physician Seo-bi (Bae Doo-na) and tiger hunter Yeong-shin (Kim Sung-kyu), who are struggling to deal with a plague that brings the dead back to life by nightfall.
The show propels the plot forward at near breakneck speed, bringing audiences to the edge of their seats even during scenes sans zombies. Its historical setting adds to its richness with themes of political and class struggle; the thrilling fight scenes (with swords and bows and arrows taking centre stage), stunning landscapes, and detailed costumes never fail to please. The past two seasons have ended on cliffhangers, leaving viewers clamouring for more.
See also: 15 Scariest Asian Horror Movies To Watch
6/11 It's Okay to Not Be Okay
This 2020 hit K-drama follows Moon Gang-tae (Kim Soo-hyun), a caretaker at a psychiatric ward and Ko Moon-young (Seo Yea-ji), a children's book author. Gang-tae has devoted much of his life to caring for his older autistic brother, Moon Sang-tae (Oh Jung-se). All seems to be going well for the two brothers when Moon-young enters their life. Despite all her success, Moon-young feels empty but suddenly takes a liking to Gang-tae. A budding romance and emotional healing forms between the two but Gang-tae struggles to find his footing on how to both care for his brother, Moon-young and even himself.
It's Okay to Not Be Okay is considered a game-changer in K-drama. The series not only opened the doors on portraying mental illness on screen but it also allowed more conversations on mental health. The performances of all three leads have also earned praise, as well as Moon-young's head-turning fashion choices and jewellery that include Fred’s emblematic Force 10 Collection.
See also: “It’s Okay To Not Be Okay” Fashion: All The Designer Brands Worn In Netflix's Hit Show
7/11 Mr. Sunshine
Mr. Sunshine might not be a hundred per cent accurate with its historical portrayal but this Korean epic definitely won the hearts of many, thanks to its incredible cast, cinematography and portrayal of love—for another person, for your country and for yourself.
It follows the story of a young slave in Joseon, Eugene Choi (Lee Byung-hyun), who escaped to the United States to become a Marine Corps officer. He later returns to his homeland for a mission and meets a noblewoman, Go Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri) who is secretly part of an independent group seeking to rebel. Challenging their romance is not only their different backgrounds and social classes but also the emerging tensions in the political climate that they're in.
While concerns regarding the casting emerged, the drama managed to show that loves know no boundaries, not social class nor nationality. It was deeply praised for its deep storytelling, raising awareness of history and its depiction of strong female characters who both take centre stage with one wielding a gun and the other a sword.
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8/11 The King: Eternal Monarch
The King: Eternal Monarch marks the highly-anticipated comeback of Lee Min-ho (of the mega-hit Boys Over Flowers) after his mandatory military service. It also marked the comeback of popular screenwriter Kim Eun-sook who previously helmed smash hits, Goblin and Mr. Sunshine. The story is about a modern-day Korean emperor, Lee Gon (Lee Min-ho) who passes through a portal that leads him to a parallel world. Here, he encounters Jeong Tae-eul (Kim Go-eun), a feisty detective. The two transverse the different realities that they live in with the threat looming from both worlds.
Anyone familiar with Kim Eun-sook's work knows of her grandeur themes, mostly one that depicts that love can indeed conquer all and in this drama, love wins even if both the characters are from different worlds. The King: Eternal Monarch is all of Kim's signature troupes put together and while many were initially confused with the parallel worlds and characters, the show's lavish setting, spectacular cinematography and the great ensemble make it worth a watch.
See also: The Story Behind The Jewellery Worn on Netflix's "The King: Eternal Monarch"
9/11 My Mister
My Mister star popular K-pop idol and actress, IU in perhaps the best performance of her acting career. The drama is about Park Dong-hun (Lee Sun-kyun), a man in his 40s who is beginning to experience the mid-life crisis and Lee Ji-an (IU), a woman in her 20s who is struggling to make-ends-meet while caring for her grandmother. The two come together in a journey of healing not only with issues in their present life but also on their past wounds.
This slice-of-life drama received critical acclaim for his screenplay, direction and the acting, particularly IU, for her endearing performance as Lee Ji-an. And while the age difference between the two leads initially caused concern, that quickly vanished as the drama showed that it isn't a love story but a story about love. My Mister refreshing watch in the K-drama line-up where romance usually reigns supreme.
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10/11 The World of the Married
It's a given to put the highest-rated drama in Korean cable television history on this list. The sleeper-hit, The World of the Married, based on the British series, Doctor Foster tells the story of a married couple, Ji Sun-woo (Kim Hee-ae), a well-respected family medicine doctor and her husband, Lee Tae-oh (Park Hae-joon), a struggling movie director. What seems like a happy marriage quickly descends in a world of betrayal, lies and revenge.
The series garnered a lot of talk in his take on heavy themes such as adultery and violence which are often not discussed on TV. But it also received critical praise for its direction and acting with both director Mo Wan-il and lead actress Kim winning awards. The show was so popular that various parodies were made. Rather than easily falling into the trap of showing a typical revenge storyline, The World of the Married went beyond and focused on the psychology of the characters instead, never painting anyone directly as good or bad. It also pushed boundaries when it touched on issues of social inequality, the stigma around divorcees and gender discrimination.
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If you're in need of break on the usual romance stories, put Signal on your watchlist. This crime-thriller received widespread acclaim both from viewers and critics alike for its story and performances—evident by being the 10th highest-rated Korean drama cable in TV series which also spun a Japanese remake.
It's about a criminal profiler Park Hae-Young (Lee Je-hoon) who finds a mysterious walkie-talkie that allows him to communicate with a detective in 1989. With an endless number of cold cases piling up, the two teams up to solve the cases only to discover that they may be more connected—both past and present—than they ever imagined.
Signal is just the type of series you would expect from South Korean crime and thriller flicks, a niche that they have established with many successful movies, but with a time-travelling twist. The drama is exciting, gripping and definitely leave you at the edge of your seat.
See also: The Best True Crime Documentaries To Watch On Netflix
This article was originally published on May 27, 2020 and was updated on January 5, 2021