3 Netflix Korean Dramas that had Explosive Responses
If you’ve been anywhere near social media or Netflix recently, then you’ve seen the storm that Squid Game has created. Fans of Korean dramas, fans of Korean culture, and even people with no knowledge about anything related to Korea have dived deep into the ruthless drama with near obsession. The drama itself spread far across the internet—memes were developed, games within shows came to light, and the infamous “would you survive?” question was asked to almost every celebrity fans could find. But this isn’t the first time a Netflix-made Korean drama took the internet by storm. From the beginning of 2020 to now, here are three Netflix Korean dramas that gained the world’s attention.
3 Netflix Korean Dramas Worth Your Time:
1. Itaewon Class (2020)
Starting off this list strong, we should talk about the Netflix Korean drama that basically started it all. Of course, there’s been plenty of Korean dramas that have hit it off on the international scale, but we didn’t see this kind of widespread response until Itaewon Class came out at the beginning of 2020.
This drama follows the life of an ex-convict who’s just trying to get his pub to the top of the food industry. But he’s challenged along the way with the pain of his father’s death, the prison time, and the people trying to stand in his way. He makes friends, but he also makes enemies throughout this journey to reach the top.
Directed by Kim Sungyoon, this drama is sixteen episodes long. From the very first episode, you’re holding your breath to find out more. But the show never slows down—there are always more challenges to face after one is finally surpassed. Not only does this drama pack a powerful punch, but it has you grasped in its emotional webbing that keeps you watching throughout the upsetting moments.
Truly, this Netflix Korean drama is one of a kind, and that’s why it’s on our list. You can read more about this particular drama and its webtoon series in our blog post here. And you can watch this drama on Netflix here.
Main Characters and Actors/Actresses
A Netflix Korean drama wouldn’t become this popular if it didn’t grip the watcher’s attention throughout the show. One of the ways a drama can do that is through the actor’s/actress’ portrayal of their characters. If an actor doesn’t play their part just right, the whole drama can be ruined.
Luckily for Itaewon Class, though, this Netflix Korean drama has one of the best lineups of actors and actresses.
Park Seojoon (playing Park Saeroyi)
The leading character of this Netflix Korean drama—the ex-convict fighting to reach the top of the food industry—is Park Saeroyi. This character is already unique in his own way, but Park Seojoon adds another level to it.
Park Seojoon is a Korean actor who’s been in the acting scene for about ten years. He’s known for his roles in Kill Me, Heal Me (2015), Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth (2016-2017), What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim (2018), and Itawon Class (2020). He’s also participated in multiple Korean films throughout his career.
What’s interesting about Park’s display of Saeroyi in Itaewon Class is the muted expressions throughout the show. Saeroyi is not a character that can easily express his thoughts or his emotions—unless they’re along the lines of anger, of course. So Park had to express most of the character’s emotions through physical habits and stoic facial expressions. I can still vividly see Saeroyi patting down his own hair as he thinks or gets nervous. Those little movements speak volumes to the watchers.
Since this Netflix Korean drama came out, many people have praised Park Seojoon’s skills as an actor. Many have kept a close eye on the work he’s doing elsewhere now, watching his new and old dramas.
Kim Dami (playing Jo Yiseo)
As a relatively recent actress in South Korea, Kim Dami sure made a big splash with her role in Itaewon Class. In this Netflix Korean drama, she plays Jo Yiseo, one of the love interests and friends of Park Saeroyi.
Besides her role in Itaewon Class, she’s also known for her role in the mystery film The Witch: Part 1, The Subversion (2018). But she only made her acting debut in 2017, so there’s plenty more to come from her in terms of show and film appearances.
In Itaewon Class, Kim plays a headstrong and determined Jo Yiseo. She meets Saeroyi by chance and sticks to him from there, helping build his pub up on the publicity side of things. She’s not only fierce, but she’s demanding (in the best way possible—people look at her whenever she enters a room because her presence is that strong). Yet she also shows an immense about of vulnerability throughout the show.
With this kind of emotional to unwavering character, Kim had put on a performance that not many could’ve pulled off as elegantly. For her performance in this eye-catching Netflix Korean drama, she won Best New Actress at the 2020 Baeksang Arts Award.
Kwon Nara (playing Oh Soo-ah)
Starting off as a member of the girl group Hello Venus, Nara didn’t start off as an actress. But she slowly made her way into the acting scene by having cameo roles. In 2017, Nara first played her major acting role in Suspicious Partner.
She held one of the major roles in Itaewon Class, playing Oh Soo-ah. Soo-ah was the second love interest of Park Saeroyi and an old friend. However, she was a character made to frustrate the watchers. She continuously did things for the wrong side and seemed to only lead Saeroyi on. She was unmoving in places many watchers felt she shouldn’t have been.
But a great actress will truly make the watchers despise a character—since their acting was so believable that it brought upon frustrations and annoyance. Kwon did just this. She made many watchers—including me—want to scream after each bad choice she seemed to make.
Truly, this made Itaewon Class one of the more popular Netflix Korean dramas out of all the ones that came before it.
Out of all the amazing Netflix Korean dramas made before Itaewon Class, why did this one get such a worldwide response? And why is it the first one on this list?
Short explanation: Itaewon Class broke the mold on what was to be expected in a Korean drama. Was there romance? Yes. Was there a classic love triangle? Yup, sure was. But there was way more to this drama than that.
Firstly, this drama had a transgender character, ex-convicts (the kind that were actually trying to get their life back on track, not the ones who wanted to cause more trouble), and a black character who directly faced racism throughout the show. These kinds of characters weren’t expressed in past Korean dramas, making this one stand out.
Not only did Itaewon Class touch on a lot of taboo subjects, but it didn’t brush them off. Many of these issues in Korea—the LGBTQ+ and racism issues—are typically shown in small scale or not at all. But this Netflix Korean drama included these issues directly in the plot, allowing it to drive the motivation of the characters and make choices that the watchers might not expect.
Because of this speaking the unspoken, the outstanding plot, and the actors/actresses, it’s no wonder Itaewon Class jumped to the top of the “to watch” list for everyone at the beginning of 2020 and gained such a fierce response from viewers.
2. It’s Okay to Not Be Okay (2020)
The next powerhouse drama on our list of Netflix Korean dramas came out a few months after Itaewon Class. Indeed, this drama had a lot to live up to with being so close to the first. But it surpassed any possible standard set and paved its own way to popularity.
It’s Okay to Not Be Okay (also known as Psycho, But It’s Okay) is a romance drama that follows a children’s book writer and a mental healthcare worker’s entangled stories. It dips into the psychological aspects of mental health and trauma, but not the sick and twisted plotline psychological lovers look for. Between the people at the psychological hospital and the writer’s own outlandish behavior, the healthcare worker has a lot to deal with. And when you add his brother, who is suffering from past trauma and is on the autism spectrum, the characters have a lot to work through.
The drama is directed by Park Shinwoo and has a total of sixteen episodes. It ran from June to August in 2020. This drama is emotional, hard-hitting, and straight up mind-boggling. There’s too much to unpack in a single episode, let alone an entire series. But this drama is beyond worth the watch (just keep your tissues close by! I cried so many times while watching).
You can read more about this Netflix Korean drama in our blog post for it here! And, if you’re already ready to watch it, then you can find it on Netflix here.
Main Characters and Actors/Actresses
Just like Itaewon Class, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay is a Netflix Korean drama that’s full of talented and eye-catching actors/actresses. The main characters are portrayed so well that you can’t help but grow attached to them. And though there are outlandish and a bit bizarre moments throughout the show, the actors and actresses do so well at not making the scenes cringy or too crazy. For me, the actors and actresses are the one defining thing that made this particular Netflix Korean drama explode in popularity.
Kim Soohyun (playing Moon Gangtae)
One of the leading characters of this Netflix Korean drama is Moon Gangtae. This character is the healthcare worker for the psychiatric hospital. Kim Soohyun, a well-experienced actor, plays this role perfectly.
Throughout his career, Kim has played a wide range of characters—from the leading role to a guest appearance in the background. He first made his debut as an actor in the show Kimchi Cheese Smile (2007). However, he’s played in plenty of well-known dramas after that—including, Dream High (2011), Hotel del Luna (2019), Crash Landing on You (2020), and more.
In It’s Okay to Not Be Okay, Kim portrays the healthcare worker who holds an unemotional façade, letting the world just happen around him as he helps people get through their days. Of course, he doesn’t really feel nothing. He’s a bit of a worrier. Between his brother’s trauma and autism, the patients at the hospital, and his own personal issues, Moon Gangtae faces enough of the world alone that he’s gotten used to holding his emotions in.
Even so, Kim plays the character well. The more the show goes on, the deeper understanding you’ll have of Moon Gangtae. But this kind of emotional response towards him wouldn’t happen if it were any other actor playing him.
Seo Yeji (playing Go Munyeong)
The second leading character of It’s Okay to Not Be Okay is Go Munyeong. Go is the children’s book author who’s a little on the eccentric side. She’s brash, a bit spoiled, and doesn’t know how to back down when someone tells her no.
Throughout her career, Seo Yeji has played in a variety of Korean dramas and films. Between period dramas, sitcoms, romcoms, and more, Seo has had her hand in many different roles. She can pull off nearly every role she’s given. Besides It’s Okay to Not Be Okay, Seo has acted in popular dramas Last (2015), Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth (2016), and Save Me (2017).
With her character’s loud personality in this Netflix Korean drama, Seo had to perfect the sadistic but controlled personality. Because yes, Go Munyeong is that kind of chaotic throughout the show. But Seo helps draw us in and understand the character by not crossing the threshold of too much.
Oh Jungse (playing Moon Sangtae)
Oh Jungse is one of the most experienced actors on our list of Netflix Korean dramas. He’s got countless films he’s acted in—starting back in 1997—and just as many dramas. In It’s Okay to Not Be Okay, he plays Moon Sangtae, Gangtae’s brother.
Though he’s got countless shows and films on his list of experiences, Oh is mostly known for his roles in Missing 9 (2017), When the Camellia Blooms (2019), Hot Stove League (2019), and It’s Okay to Not Be Okay (2020).
In this Netflix Korean drama, Oh plays a character on the autism spectrum. While I do believe that people who actually experience things such as autism should have the chance to act in shows, I think Oh did a wonderful job at portraying the character without making it seem like he was making fun of people with autism.
Instead, this character is one of the most influential ones throughout the drama. Whatever Moon Gangtae does, it’s heavily influenced by what his brother wants or can handle. So many things are led by Oh’s character—he’s the one who’s a fan of Go Munyeong, so he brought them all together in a way.
Overall, the emotions that Oh shows throughout Moon Sangtae are powerful. Because there are specific scenes of Moon sitting there and memorizing emotion cards, it seems hard to believe that the character truly understands what emotions are. Yet he’s one of the most emotionally driven characters on the show. It’s fascinating and quite drawing to watch him develop throughout the entirety of the show.
When this Netflix Korean drama first came out, the internet went nuts.
With good reason, of course. This drama, much like Itaewon Class, stepped out of the box of what was expected from Korean dramas. Firstly, this drama talked about mental health and psychiatric treatment normally. By this, I mean that the show didn’t shy away from this topic and treated it like they’re normal things to experience (which they are). Many fans commended the show for breaking through the taboo of everything.
Secondly, this show was heart-wrenching to watch. Unlike Itaewon Class, which was motivated by anger and revenge, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay was led by even more demanding emotions: sadness, pain, anguish. The characters throughout the show weren’t exactly seeking revenge for things that happened in the past, but they were trying to work through their emotional traumas. There was fighting and anger—and quite a bit of physical pain, too—but it all stemmed from their emotional traumas and motivations. This is quite different for a Korean drama of this plotline.
Because of all of these amazing things, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay became one of the most talked-about and loved Netflix Korean dramas. It’s been just over a year since it first came out, but people are still loving and recommending it. It’s a favorite for many and will probably remain so.
3. Squid Game (2021)
The Netflix Korean drama that everyone is talking about nowadays is Squid Game. Whether or not you’re into Korean dramas, you’ve definitely run into something about this one. As the first Korean drama to rank number one on Netflix, Squid Game has done what no other drama has done before.
The nine-episode drama was released in full globally on Netflix on September 17, 2021. Hwang Donghyuk directed and wrote it. The show follows characters all fighting for the same thing: 45.6 billion won. Throughout the show, it’s taking a darker twist on children’s games and creating a harrowing result of life or death competitions. This drama is not for those who get queasy with blood, physical pain, etc.
This Netflix Korean drama is haunting, largely twisted, and will leave you in awe. Despite the childlike and innocent tactic the show puts on, it’s got such an in-depth and twisted plot that will have you sitting on the edge of your seat the entire time. If you’d like to read more about Squid Game, you can check out our blog post about it here! And if you want to get into watching it, you can find it on Netflix here.
Main Characters and Actors/Actresses
Fans of the Netflix Korean drama Squid Game fell in love with the characters and the actors/actresses playing them. Not only did the actors and actresses pull the watchers in, but their personalities quickly drew more attention to the show. Each actor and actress gained thousands, if not millions, of followers on social media and are still being talked about long after the show was released.
Lee Jungjae (playing Seong Gihun)
Lee Jungjae first debuted as a fashion model before beginning his career as an actor. He’s acted in both films and dramas throughout his career, taking on the part of various characters and personalities. In all of his career, he’s been nominated and won Best (New) Actor at various award shows. His work in Squid Game further showcases his skills as an actor.
In this Netflix Korean drama, Lee plays Seong Gihun. Seong is a character worn down by a hard life—he’s a gambling addict, but struggling to support his daughter financially. He joins the game when he learns of the prize money, wanting to have more financial stability for himself and his daughter.
Throughout the show, Lee portrays Seong in a captivating way. You can’t help but feel for the character as you see what he’s going through. Through all of the twists and turns that Squid Game brings, Seong holds steady as a character. Lee truly acts out Seong seamlessly, drawing the watchers in and hooking them until the very end.
Park Haesoo (playing Cho Sangwoo)
At first, Park Haesoo made his debut in musical theatre in 2007. From there, he took to the big screen—acting in both television series and films. He’s most known for his roles in Prison Playbook (2017-2018) and Squid Game. He’s won the Best New Actor Award at three separate award shows.
In Squid Game, Park plays Cho Sangwoo—someone who’s known Seong Gihun since they were younger as they grew up in the same neighborhood. Cho was a bright student who secured a prestigious university degree and a great job. However, things take a hard turn when Cho is found stealing money from clients.
Now, Cho is wanted by the police and in dept millions of won. So he decides to join the game with Seong Gihun. Cho’s character plays an important role throughout the Netflix Korean drama as his bond with Seong dictates a lot of moments. They’ve known and trusted each other for a long time, so it’s understandable that it comes up in dire moments of this Netflix Korean drama.
Wi Hajoon (playing Hwang Junho)
Known for his work in Korean films such as Gonjiam: Hanted Asylum (2018) and Midnight (2021) as well as his work in dramas like Something in the Rain (2018) and Romance is a Bonus Book (2019), Wi Hajoon is the perfect addition to this Netflix Korean drama.
In Squid Game, Wi plays Hwang Junho—a police officer who snuck into the game to find his missing brother. Compared to the other characters, Hwang is participating for different reasons—reasons that are more emotionally driven than money-driven. This makes him stand out amongst the others.
Wi displays the perfect acting for this role, giving us a change of motivation to watch while also still keeping us captivated the entire time.
Jung Hoyeon (playing Kang Saebyeok)
The last, but not least, main character of Squid Game is Kang Saebyeok. Jung Hoyeon, a Korean model and actress, started her career in 2010 with multiple different appearances on fashion shows and model-related works. She actually made her acting debut in Squid Game.
In this Netflix Korean drama, Jung plays Kang Saebyeok. Kang is a North Korean defector who’s just trying to earn money to pay a broker to find her family still back in North Korea. Her motivation throughout the show is the dream of living in a house with her younger brother and mother.
Kang’s character, much like Hwang Junho, brings an interesting sense to the show. She’s not necessarily in debt and she’s very entwined with her emotional motivations to win the game, but she’s still battling alongside everyone else.
This role has gained a lot of popularity for the actress, making her debut in the acting world quite successful.
Arguably, Squid Game earned the highest, most impressive response out of any of the Netflix Korean dramas on this list.
This was the first Korean drama to ever rank number one on Netflix, gaining thousands and thousands of viewers with its release. Fans of the show still talk about it, using images from the show and quotes from the characters every day. Even if you hadn’t watched the show, you definitely heard about it.
People have used images of the show as memes, they’ve used the concept as various games, and they’ve taken to asking anyone and everyone “would you survive?” Seriously, this drama exploded like no other.
Most of it comes from the amazingly twisted plot, the entrancing characters, and the overflowing aesthetic (the colors are so visually appealing that it’s more than just captivating to watch). Not only has Squid Game taken on the harsh realities that society has put us through, but it’s exploring how much a human can truly do when they’re facing a crisis. It’s dark, it’s twisted, but it’s something everyone has enjoyed watching.
When the next Netflix Korean drama pops up, no doubt fans will compare it to Squid Game. It’s become that show for a lot of people.
The Growth of Netflix Korean Dramas since 2020
Netflix-made Korean dramas have been around for years. Personally, I’ve watched quite a few amazing Netflix Korean dramas that weren’t listed. However, they really only gained this explosive reaction from watchers in 2020 with Itaewon Class. Why?
There’s no actual answer to this question, but we can probably assume the situation with Covid-19 played a pretty big role in it. When the world shut down in the beginning months of 2020, many people had to find something to do inside their houses. Naturally, people turned to Netflix to binge on their favorite shows and watch new ones. Eventually, they fell onto Korean dramas.
With the push from Netflix to create shows from Asian countries, Itaewon Class came out at the perfect time. With its captivating plot that could keep people’s attention amidst the world’s shut down, Itaewon Class opened the door for Korean dramas to a lot of people who hadn’t had the time to invest in them before. And when It’s Okay to Not Be Okay came out, people were already hooked.
So the easiest way to explain the growth of Netflix Korean dramas is to mention Covid-19 and quarantine. There may be other factors, but this is the most obvious answer.
If you’d like to find more dramas to spend your time watching, feel free to check out our Dramas Category! We’ve written about a lot of amazing dramas—including the most popular Korean dramas on Viki and other, more specific, dramas such as Mr. Queen and True Beauty. And if you want to dive into Netflix-made Korean films, you can check out the blog we wrote about some of the most popular ones here!