With 2020 just around the corner, this is the perfect time to look back on the highest-rated Korean dramas of 2019. High ratings and, by extension, popularity, do not necessarily equate to quality dramas, so don’t be misled into thinking that the series below represent the best of the year. We have a separate list for that but for now, scroll down the page and find out which series this year pulled in the highest TV ratings and received lots of love during their broadcast.
We included 34 free-to-air and 46 cable prime-time Korean dramas in our ranking, which is based on average nationwide ratings from Nielsen Korea (using the peak ratings will reveal a similar list). We put aside all non-prime-time series and even prime-time weekend dramas (e.g. KBS2 family dramas) that tend to obtain abnormally high ratings. To know more about TV ratings, read Korean Drama Ratings Explained: Hotel del Luna got 10%, which means?. Contact us through this page if you need more information about our methodology.
10 Highest-Rated Korean Dramas of 2019 (Free-to-air TV)
10. Angel’s Last Mission: Love — 7.3%
Rounding out the top 10 in the free-to-air category is the fantasy romance Angel’s Last Mission: Love, which boasts of the stellar performances of leads Shin Hye-sun and Kim Myung-soo (L). The drama follows a carefree angel who is tasked with finding the true love of a cold-hearted, insolent ballerina before he could return to heaven. He thinks it’s mission impossible because no guy can put up with her despicable attitude, but that’s nothing compared to when he ends up falling for her himself.
9. Doctor John — 8.3%
Doctor John is probably the first medical drama in K-dramaland where anaesthesiologists, NOT surgeons, take center stage in the story—which for me makes it more interesting. But without that novel detail, it is just like most of the medical series you have seen. You get a genius doctor who can identify the cause of a patient’s pain in seconds and see Ji Sung’s character being sent to jail again (remember Defendant?). Playing opposite the award-winning actor are Lee Se-young and Lee Kyu-hyung, who had been confirmed recently to take on his first lead role.
8. Woman of 9.9 Billion — 8.9%
Woman of 9.9 Billion tells the story of a woman, played by Cho Yeo-jeong, who’s spent her life being trampled and abused by her parents and husband. But when she miraculously gets hold of 9.9 billion in cash ($8.5 million), she starts to fight for a better life, which is easier said than done since there’s definitely more than meets the eye with the huge sum of money falling from heaven. Kim Kang-woo plays a disgraced cop who seeks justice for his sibling’s death. The two leads previously starred together in the 2012 romantic comedy Lovers of Haeundae.
7. VIP — 9.2%
I didn’t watch VIP (yet) but the last time I read reviews about the series, people can’t help but point out that a certain “sl*t” and other disgusting characters are ruining their viewing experience. I too hate such characters but on the other hand, they make us root for the protagonists even more. As of the writing of this article, the drama has already achieved a peak rating of 13.2 percent (impressive, although it has no rival dramas on KBS2 and MBC). Jang Na-ra and Lee Sang-yoon are starring as a couple whose marriage life starts to fall apart after the wife discovers a series of secrets about her husband.
6. Vagabond — 9.3%
I know that Vagabond was bound to become one of the highest-rated Korean dramas of 2019 because of singer-actors Lee Sung-gi and Bae Suzy—who both headlined the 2013 fantasy sageuk Gu Family Book—but I didn’t expect it to fail to enter the top 5. The spy action series revolves around a stuntman who struggles to expose the truth behind a plane crash that has killed his nephew and a National Intelligence Service agent who gives him a hand with solving the case. The first episode was great but the finale is better left unwatched. It’s an overall decent show ruined by a lack of a reasonable ending.
5. Liver Or Die — 12.19%
Only three noncable series managed to surpass the 20 percent mark this year, and Liver Or Die was the first one to do so. It doesn’t have a star-studded cast nor a big budget, but it went on to achieve a remarkable success that no one has expected. The family drama is about a middle-aged man, played by Yoo Jun-sang, who has spent his life relentlessly supporting his four younger siblings and worrying about their problems. It’s interesting to note that KBS2’s winning streak in the midweek drama viewership started with this show. All Wednesday-Thursday dramas of the network, except for Justice, have made it to this top 10 list.
4. The Last Empress — 12.21%
The Last Empress, Jang Na-ra’s first drama this year, is set in a modern constitutional monarchy and follows the life of an aspiring musical actress who ties the knot with the emperor (Shin Sung-rok), only to become instrumental in toppling the corrupt imperial family with the help of a royal bodyguard (Choi Jin-hyuk). The 52-episode series became the longest weekday prime-time Korean drama in 2019 but despite its lengthy 3-month broadcast, it constantly enjoyed double-digit ratings from its fourth week. It was originally conceived as a 48-episode drama but SBS greenlighted an extension partly because of the positive feedback, even after knowing that Choi Jin-hyuk could no longer shoot the additional episodes due to scheduling conflicts.
3. Doctor Prisoner — 13.2%
Doctor Prisoner is Namgoong Min’s attempt at recovering from the poor viewership performance of his previous series The Undateables, which is one of the lowest-rated Korean dramas in 2018. Thankfully his choice and hard work paid off since the medical crime drama obtained double-digit ratings in its second week. The story centers on a brilliant doctor who is forced to quit his job at a hospital after being accused of medical malpractice. Disgusted at the turn of events, he starts working in a prison to build connections with powerful inmates and take revenge on the people who have wronged him.
2. When The Camellia Blooms — 13.9%
Starring Gong Hyo-jin and Kang Ha-neul, When The Camellia Blooms is one of this year’s dramas with particularly strong female characters at the center of the story. Gong Hyo-jin portrays a woman who was abandoned by her mother when she was a child and now does her best to raise her own son and give him a comfortable life, even if it means she has to be bullied and treated as an outcast by society for being a single mom who runs a bar. Camellia is only a runner-up as far as average ratings are concerned but when we talk about peak ratings, it is no. 1 with 23.8 percent, followed by Liver Or Die with 22.7 percent and The Fiery Priest with 22.0 percent.
1. The Fiery Priest — 16.1%
2019’s highest-rated Korean drama on free-to-air TV is The Fiery Priest, starring Kim Nam-gil as the titular bad-tempered Catholic priest who teams up with a prosecutor (Lee Ha-nee) and a detective (Kim Sung-kyun) to solve a murder case and beat (literally) other bad guys who mess up with him. The drama is far from flawless but you can barely hear anyone give negative comments about it. So it comes as no surprise that it won the Excellent Korean Drama prize at the 2019 Seoul International Drama Awards. Everyone loves it and demands a sequel!
10 Highest-Rated Korean Dramas of 2019 (Cable TV)
10. Chief Of Staff — 4.456%
We rarely get dramas where the main character is morally-corrupt, and that is why Chief Of Staff is special. Political dramas always make more impact when they’re real, and this one is as real as it gets in politics—from Lee Jung-jae playing a power-hungry aide of a congressman to Shin Min-ah portraying an ambitious rookie lawmaker. The drama is an unflinching look at the ruthless world of politics and how it can corrupt even the best of people, and how governments work to hide corruption scandals that threaten to expose them. Interestingly, the series got a second season that was released five months after the first, thanks to Netflix’s exclusive deal with JTBC.
9. Designated Survivor: 60 Days — 4.464%
Remakes are often a hit or miss, but like 2016’s The Good Wife, Designated Survivor: 60 Days turned out to be a solid hit. It borrows its thrills and characters from the original but manages to transform completely the American political landscape into a South Korean one, giving us a clever political commentary. As far as performances go, this one had not just one or two, but several memorable ones—from Ji Jin-hee as the professor-turned-President of the Republic Of Korea to Kang Han-na as the intelligence agent, Lee Joon-hyuk as the mysterious independent lawmaker, and Son Seok-gu as one of the President’s secretaries.
8. Watcher — 4.548%
Despite having a star-studded cast, Watcher didn’t get the full attention it deserved both in terms of ratings and buzz. But if you are one of those who don’t care about these things while choosing a drama, you’re in luck, because this one is a gem. Starring Seo Kang-joon as a young police officer, Han Suk-kyu as his mentor and a veteran detective, and Kim Hyun-joo as a shady lawyer, the series deals with corruption within the police and a murder case several years ago that unites the three leads. Go in expecting great performances and smart plot twists and you won’t be disappointed.
7. Confession — 4.8%
Lee Jun-ho returns to playing a lawyer in this crime series from the director of the award-winning 2018 drama Mother. Joining him is Yoo Jae-myung, who plays an impulsive but righteous ex-detective bent on bringing the perpetrators to justice. Confession tackles the Korean law of double jeopardy which ensures that a person can’t be tried twice for the same crime, and its repercussions in cases involving the lawyer-detective duo. This is one of those underrated dramas that are not for everyone but deserve love and appreciation. Tune in for some fantastic performances, fascinating mystery, and thrilling plot twists.
6. Graceful Family — 4.9%
When it comes to melodrama and plot twists, nothing can beat a good revenge drama involving a rich family like Graceful Family. Im Soo-hyang headlines the series playing the role of an arrogant heiress who teams up with a lawyer (Lee Jang-woo) at her family’s company to find out the truth behind her mother’s death. Veteran drama actress Bae Jong-ok joins the duo as the shrewd lawyer who is involved in shielding many secrets about the influential family she works for. Despite some rather cliched K-drama arcs, this drama stood out for its strong female lead and a ruthless villainess and, most importantly, it became MBN’s highest-rated TV program of all time with a peak rating of 8.5 percent. That’s probably the most incredible accomplishment made by a drama this year, which is why I used the series in the featured image of this article.
5. Romance Is A Bonus Book — 5.2%
Completing the top 5 highest-rated Korean dramas of 2019 in this category is Romance Is A Bonus Book, a classic feel-good romance led by Lee Na-young. She aces her role as a copywriter who is forced to lie on her resume to get a job at a publishing company owned by Lee Jong-suk’s character. This lovely noona romance will make you want to put yourself out there and fall in love. At first, many people were hesitant to watch the series because of the 10-year age gap between the leads, but they stopped complaining the moment they saw Lee Na-young nail her role and create the right balance of chemistry with Lee Jong-suk. For book lovers, this drama set in the book publishing world will become an instant favorite.
4. The Light In Your Eyes — 6.3%
One of the most heartwarming dramas of the year, The Light In Your Eyes stars Han Ji-min, Kim Hye-ja, and Nam Joo-hyuk in a story about family, youth and time travel. Yes, you read that right. Time travel (but not quite; you’ll understand why when you watch the entire show). We have Han Ji-min and Kim Hye-ja playing the same character of a lovable 25-year-old who one day wakes up as a 70-year-old after having used a magical watch that can mess with time. This critically acclaimed drama will make you laugh, cry, break your heart, put it back together, and inspire you for life. It also features some stunning performances from supporting cast Son Ho-jun, Ahn Nae-sang, and Lee Jung-eun, who won Best Supporting Actress at the 55th Baeksang Arts Awards.
3. Arthdal Chronicles — 6.6%
Easily one of 2019’s most hyped shows, Arthdal Chronicles had everything going for it—it served as the comeback drama of the world-famous actor Song Joong-ki, it starred several big names like Jang Dong-gun, Kim Ok-bin, and Kim Ji-won, it had a gigantic budget, and it earned the title as the first ancient historical drama on Korean TV. It is therefore hardly surprising that the drama got the ratings to match its hype. However, the reviews it got didn’t perfectly match the hype at all. Somewhere in the middle, the script and writing got compromised, making for a very underwhelming ending. Like Chief Of Staff, Designated Survivor: 60 Days, and Romance Is A Bonus Book, Arthdal is a Korean Netflix original series.
2. The Crowned Clown — 8.4%
As far as historical dramas go, The Crowned Clown has a pretty cliched plot—a doppelganger clown is brought in to take the place of a Joseon King whose life is in danger, and then falls for the queen. What sets it apart, however, is the amazing characterization and several brilliant performances, most notably by the show’s lead Yeo Jin-goo, who oscillated perfectly between playing the slightly mad original king and his replacement, the clown with the kind heart. Yeo Jin-goo’s performance earned him a Best Actor nomination at the 2019 Baeksang Arts Awards, and although he did not win, we’re expecting some recognition for him in other award ceremonies next year!
1. Hotel del Luna — 8.9%
On the top of this list of the highest-rated Korean dramas of 2019 in the cable category is perhaps this year’s grandest drama in both story and execution, Hotel del Luna—a horror romance story from one of Kdramaland’s favorite writers, the Hong sisters. Bringing their fantasy world to life are Lee Ji-eun (IU) and Yeo Jin-goo, who play hosts of the titular hotel where ghosts come to stay. Packed with horror, comedy, fantasy, mythology, history, and romance, the series also became the highest-rated Korean drama of 2019 in terms of peak ratings with a record of 12.0 percent. If you enjoy grand world-building, beautiful cinematography, and a kickass female lead who’s not the nicest girl in town, this is the drama for you. (Don’t forget to notice that the top two dramas are both headlined by Yeo Jin-goo.)
That’s it for 2019! Which dramas do you think deserve the high ratings? Let me know through your comments! You can also read the top 10 list of the highest-rated Korean dramas in the previous years—2018, 2017, and 2016.
IndoorEnthusiast wrote the top 10 on cable TV.