The Korean wave (Hallyu) has made Korean dramas so popular that they do not only cater to Asian viewers but also to the global audience. A 2019 worldwide survey by Statista showed that 35.8% of the respondents stated that K-dramas are quite popular in their country, while 27.2% said that they are very popular.
The growing popularity of Korea’s entertainment industry can also be attributed to the support and finance they get from their government, leading to South Korea becoming a major exporter of pop culture. They have also been experiencing a boom in their tourism since the start of the 21st century. Back in 2014, the South Korean government allocated about 1% of the country’s annual budget to the cultural and entertainment industry, raising $1 billion worth of funds to support their pop culture. But aside from the support they get, the Korean entertainment industry’s goal is to become the leading exporter in the said industry, which means they always aim to surpass their standards for their production.
K-drama plots are never a bore, and the industry is filled with K-dramas with interesting plots. The shows are also known for their twists, which are a trademark of K-dramas. The production dives into other unexplored aspects of society and attempts to integrate those into creative storytelling, which in turn are put into play by the characters. The characters themselves are also starting to become diverse. One example is the 2020 Park Seo-joon starrer Itaewon Class, which featured a transgender character and a Guinean-Korean character. The drama also explored issues that are considered taboo, such as mental struggles. Kim Soo-hyun and Seo Ye-ji’s It’s Okay to Not Be Okay, which ended recently, also made buzz in various online platforms the whole time it aired for its fairytale-like narrative about people with mental health issues. It sparked many debates and opened up conversations among its fans. This goes to show that the Korean entertainment industry really makes an effort for its global audience, providing not only a good story but also something to fuel their minds.
Almost everyone knows someone who has a crush on one or all of the following: male stars Lee Min-ho, Park Seo-joon, Kim Soo-hyun, Kang Ha-neul, Song Joong-ki, Hyun Bin, Gong Yoo, and Lee Dong-wook and female stars IU, Bae Suzy, Seo Ye-ji, Seo Ji-hye, Kim Ji-won, Son Ye-jin, Park Shin-hye, Jun Ji-hyun, Park Min-young, to name a few. These are just some of the A-listers who grace the small screen with their talents and good looks, making drama watching more enjoyable.
Appeals to the General Audience
Unless the specific genre is either a horror, crime, or thriller, most K-dramas are intended for all types of audience. If the audience is of a younger age range, there are dramas that are less violent and have very little to no scenes of drug/substance abuse, sex, or gore. If such themes are necessary to the story, they are sometimes merely delivered through the dialogues of characters. K-dramas also know how to make an impact when it comes to romance, whether it’d be with a simple kiss or otherwise. So there is always one series that can cater to a specific type of audience.
Cheesy and Romantic Scenes
No one does it better than Korean dramas when it comes to cheesy romance and over-the-top scenes. You know, the ones where the girl walks away but the guy stops her by aggressively grabbing her hand at the last minute. Almost no K-drama romance exists that does not have this scene, and it doesn’t seem to get old. It still gives us that “butterflies in the stomach” feeling, especially when male characters start saying “Kajima” (Don’t go). Romance K-dramas almost always never have steamy scenes—there are usually just brief kissing scenes. In Western shows, it’s not unusual to see erotic scenes or really steamy make-out sessions. At times, K-dramas appeal to the international audience in a way that they focus on a couple’s story and development rather than the lovemaking to emphasize that there is much more to romance than just being physical. And even without the presence of it, K-drama couples never fail to give us heart eyes.
It’s not just the actors and actresses themselves; when we watch dramas, it seems as if Korea has everything that is beautiful. The streets, the clothes, the countryside, and even the small alleys shot in the middle of the night, everything in K-dramaland makes the settings seem like paradise. Cinematography plays an important aspect in film making, but Korea takes the standard a notch higher, making K-dramas very appealing not just to the Korean audience but to the audience around the world as well. Scenes in some K-dramas can even make you feel like you’re watching a fashion show, as the actors’ and actresses’ wardrobe choices are just breathtakingly stunning, even if they are just wearing pajamas. Well, that’s the power of K-dramas.
Cultural and Historical Backgrounds
Sageuk or historical dramas are rich in Korean culture and history, so fans and audience always learn something new. The country’s culture is also integrated into dramas of the fantasy genre, as writers creatively use Korea’s myths and folklore in plotlines. Korean culture is a haven of mythical creatures and fairytales, so the writers are spoiled with choices. Many people are drawn to fantasies and stories of the unknown. These are what drama writers are attempting to utilize by making sure that they incorporate a piece of Korea in every show. By watching these dramas, the audience also unconsciously learn things about Korea, making K-dramas fun, entertaining, and educational for its viewers.
The Korean culture values respect so much that even the dramas have made sure that this value is adapted well in shows. Characters are often portrayed showing respect to older characters, and there are always honorific titles and affixes such as sunbae/hoobae, noona/unnie, -ssi, -nim, and other affixes such as yo, hamnida, and imnika. This is because Korean culture is very hierarchical, which means they value age and status even in simple conversations. While this practice is very common among Asian countries, some cultures do not usually have honorifics in their language. Koreans, as well as other Asian cultures, not only show respect through their language but also through their tones (soft-, low-pitched) and actions (bowing their heads, not eating before the head of the family). Some viewers have expressed their fascination with the way the K-dramas put so much emphasis into their Korean values.
Always Something New
Sometimes, plots get spun and recycled for many decades that nothing seems new anymore. When this happens, watching dramas can get tiring and predictable that some viewers never make it to the final episode. But the Korean industry seems to have been taking this idea as a challenge to be able to provide something fresh for its audience. Be it in a fantasy, romance, historical, or crime-thriller, K-dramas always have a creative take on each genre. When humor is incorporated, the take is also simple and clean, so the audience can relate and laugh along with the drama. In the romance series Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo, the female lead is a weightlifter who is struggling with her experience of first love. And while sports-themed dramas are not anything new, it’s the first time I’ve seen a series that featured a female weightlifter, since the most typical are films about male weightlifters. Not only that, the production also incorporated friendship and teen romance into the series, so the young audience can still have something to relate to.