Korean dramas are now a popular hit worldwide, with a huge international following and a global audience. But before we had Goblin, Descendants of the Sun, Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo, and My Love from the Star, the classic Lovers in Paris, Stairway to Heaven, Jewel in the Palace, and Winter Sonata first made noise in the global platform, eventually prompting the popularity of the Korean entertainment industry until today. We rounded up 10 classic and most loved K-dramas in the early 2000s that introduced us to the K-drama trend.
1. Coffee Prince (2007)
Before there was General Kim Shin from Goblin (2016), there was first a Choi Han-gyul of Coffee Prince. This was Gong Yoo‘s breakout role that catapulted him to become a Hallyu star. The series follows the story of Gong Yoo’s character, who could not move on from his first love. He manages an old coffee shop where he hires Go Eun-chan (played by Yoon Eun-hye) a tomboy with a big appetite and is often mistaken as a man. In order to escape his grandmother’s persistent blind date arrangements, he pretends to be Eun-chan’s gay lover. Totally oblivious of her true gender, Han-gyul inevitably falls in love with Eun-chan and starts questioning his sexual identity. The series was so well received internationally, it was even adapted into a remake in countries like Thailand and the Philippines. It went on to win awards in several award-giving bodies such as the prestigious Baeksang Arts Awards in 2008.
2. My Girl (2005)
If we have Kim Shin, we also have the Grim Reaper Wang Yeo, the charismatic and cynical one of the duo, played by Lee Dong-wook. He became a breakout star after starring as the lead male in the 2005 romantic comedy My Girl. The series centers on Joo Yoo-rin (played by Lee Da-hae) who’s desperate to pay back her father’s overwhelming debts after he ran away from his debtors. She meets Lee Dong-wook’s character, Seol Gong-chan, who offered her a large sum of money in exchange for pretending to be his dying grandfather’s long lost grand daughter. Due to the life that she grew up in, Yoo-rin is skilled in lying and deception, which made her accept Gong-chan’s proposal. Thrilled of finally being reunited with his lost grand daughter, Gong-chan’s grandfather miraculously recovers from his sickness, which forced Gong-chan and Yoo-rin to live together under one roof as his grandchildren. The two eventually grow close and inevitably fall in love with each other while pretending to be cousins. The series was an international hit, airing on several Asian countries like Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and even Japan. It also had three remakes: from Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
3. My Name Is Kim Sam-soon/My Lovely Sam-soon (2005)
If you’re still head over heels with Captain Ri Jeong-hyuk from Crash Landing On You (2019), wait until you get swept off your feet with Hyun Jin-heon, one of Hyun Bin‘s roles that catapulted him to stardom. My Name Is Kim Sam-soon tells the story of Kim Sam-soon (played by Kim Sun-a) a chubby, 30-year-old single woman with the talent for making pastries. After being dumped by her cheating boyfriend and losing her job, she was discovered by Jin-heon, who owns a French restaurant, and hires her as the new pastry chef. Things start to get complicated after Jin-heon, fed up by his mother matchmaking dates, offers Sam-soon a deal as well as a large sum of money if she agrees to be his pretend girlfriend, as long as they do not fall for each other. But always being together eventually leads them to grow intimately close, until Ji-heon’s ex-girlfriend comes back from the US to reconcile with him. The show’s huge success was believed to be prompted by the lead female’s personality and appearance, to which many Korean women were able to relate to, therefore breaking Korean drama’s stereotype of female characters. The series won several prestigious awards, including the Grand Prize (Daesang) from both MBC Drama Awards for Kim Sun-a and Baeksang Arts Award for TV Series.
4. Full House (2004)
We know Song Hye-kyo from her role in the award-winning Descendants of the Sun (2016) but before that, she was already gaining success and fame through her major roles in other hit Korean series such as Full House. Her character, Han Ji-eun, is a cheerful and optimistic writer whose two best friends dupe her into taking a vacation so they could sell her house. On the plane, she meets the celebrity Lee Young-jae (played by Rain) who turns out to be the one who bought her house. In order to keep her house, she decides to live together with Young-jae and eventually agrees to his marriage contract proposal that he could use to make the other woman he likes jealous. But even with their clashing personalities and endless quarrels, the two eventually fall for each other. The series was a global hit and was aired in 15 different countries all over the world. It also had remakes from eight Asian countries.
5. Lovers in Paris (2004)
Lovers In Paris was writer Kim Eun-sook’s big break in the entertainment industry, earning her the status as one of the top screenwriters in Korea. The drama centers on a film student, Kang Tae-young (Kim Jung-eun), who is studying in Paris and working as a housekeeper to support her needs. She works for Han Ki-joo (played by Park Shin-yang) who is dissatisfied with her services and eventually fires her. But upon knowing where her hometown is and discovering his potential business partner’s wife is from there, too, he seizes this opportunity to make Tae-young his pretend fiancée so he can use her to his gain. As he took her to dates for their fake relationship, he eventually becomes attracted to her. And while they ended up in bad terms for a while, fate still found its way to bring them together through a series of coincidental and tragic encounters, in one of which she meets his nephew (Lee Dong-gun). The series became one of the most successful Korean dramas, earning a number of high-profile awards and even making its mark in the mainstream pop culture as the show’s fashion, quotes, and music made their way to the consumers’ world.
6. Stairway to Heaven (2003)
Stairway to Heaven is probably one of the most painful Cinderella-themed drama to hit modern TV. The story centers on both Han Jung-suh (played by Choi Ji-woo) and Cha Song-joo (played by Kwon Sang-woo) who are childhood friends and are in love with each other. When Jung-suh’s mother dies, her father remarries an actress with two children, whom he brings into their house to live with Jung-suh. Envious of Jung-suh, her stepsister Han Yoo-ri (Kim Tae-hee) schemes to make her look bad in front of their mother, who eventually maltreats Jung-suh whenever her father is away. Together, they sabotaged her plan of studying abroad with Song-joo. When he comes back from America, they schemed to stop Jung-suh and Song-joo from reuniting. Yoo-ri eventually seduces Song-joo, who’s the heir of his family’s fortune. After more tragic and tear-jerking events, the two finally reunite many years later. The show was an international hit and was well received by many, with its broadcasting rights sold to different countries across the globe. It was also adapted and aired in several Asian nations.
7. Jewel in the Palace (2003)
The show was a worldwide hit, achieving over 40% in nationwide audience ratings and becoming one of the shows that contributed to the popularity of Korean dramas in the international audience after it was exported to 91 countries. Jewel in the Palace follows the story of an orphaned kitchen cook (played by Lee Young-ae) whose parents are killed due to political reasons. With her talent and ambition, she rose to be the King’s royal physician, the first woman ever to acquire such high position in the royal court. Set in the Joseon Dynasty, where women have no influence and power in the society, the historical drama is based on the true story of the great Jang-geum, who strived to learn the art of Korean cooking and traditional medicine, earning her way to be a high-ranking official under the King’s order. The massive audience and popularity of the show contributed to its impact to the Korean culture. It went on to win several awards including the prestigous Baeksang Arts Awards for Best TV Director and Most Popular Actress.
8. Winter Sonata (2002)
Starring Bae Yong-joon and Choi Ji-woo, Winter Sonata is the second installment of the Endless Love series. It tells the story of a musician’s son, Kang Joon-sang (Bae Yong-joon), a quiet, introverted student who believes no one can love him due to his family’s complicated background. He eventually falls for his classmate Jeong Yoo-jin (Choi Ji Woo), but their relationship is cut short after Joon-sang meets an accident and develops amnesia. Manipulated by his mother, he is brainwashed and gets a new identity while his mother tells everyone that his son is dead. She then gives him a new name and moves him to America, where he becomes an architect. He goes back to Korea ten years later and is given the opportunity to work with a firm where his first love Yoo-jin, whom he cannot remember, is working. The show was a commercial success and is considered responsible for the spread of the Korean Wave or Hallyu throughout the world. It set a fashion trend in East Asia and contributed greatly to the tourism of the country.
9. Autumn in My Heart (2000)
Autumn in My Heart, starring Song Seung-heon, Song Hye-kyo, and Won Bin, marked the beginning of the Endless Love series. Because of a hospital incident that caused an infant mix-up, Choi Eun-suh (played by Song Hye-kyo) grows up in a wealthy family and becomes popular in her school, whereas the other child grows up in her place in a poor family. Eventually, Eun-suh meets an accident and is in need of a blood transfusion. It reopens the hospital mix-up case, and the two families discover the truth and had the girls switched back to their real families. Years later, Yoon Joon-suh (Song Seung-heon), who grew up thinking Eun-suh is his sister, eventually falls in love with her and secretly meets with her. Their relationship is later exposed, and their parents, who are against their union, force them to separate. While the conflict escalates, Eun-suh discovers she has leukemia. But even with a cliffhanger ending, the show was still widely accepted in several countries and had remakes in four Asian countries. It won recognition in several prestigious award-giving bodies such as the Baeksang Arts Awards.
10. Sandglass (1995)
Launching its lead cast into stardom, Sandglass tells the tragic story of a friendship stained by a political uproar during the 1970s and 1980s conflict in Korea. It follows the character of Park Tae-soo (played by Choi Min-soo), who is a strong and loyal gangster, and his friendship with Kang Woo-suk (played by actor Park Sang-won), who is a prosecutor with firm values. Tae-soo meets Yoon Hye-rin (played by Go Hyun-jung), the daughter of a rich casino owner, through Woo-suk and eventually falls in love with her. The political and melodrama action series became one of the highest-rated TV dramas in the Korean broadcasting history by single episode audience rating. The show also reenacted parts of the Gwangju Uprising, an important part of the Korean political history, which was considered by many as one of the most memorable scenes in Korean TV history.