Many great Korean dramas came out in 2019. Alas, you probably don’t have unlimited time—so which 2019 K-dramas should you prioritize watching?
This list of the Best Korean Dramas of 2019 can help you decide.
Here, Cinema Escapist has picked the top Korean dramas of 2019—across a variety of genres like romance, action, conspiracy, historical, and more.
Several criteria informed our selections. Foremost, the K-drama had to start broadcasting in 2019. This disqualified worthwhile hits like Sky Castle and Memories of the Alhambra that began in 2018. We then found 2019 K-dramas that had the best combination of high entertainment value, societal relevance, and international streaming availability.
Using these factors, we’ve come up with 11 choices for 2019’s best Korean dramas. We’ve also included streaming links for easy watching. Take a look!
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11. When the Camellia Blooms
Starring: Gong Hyo-jin, Kang Ha-neul, Kim Ji-seok | Genre: Romantic Comedy, Thriller
Our list of 2019’s best Korean dramas kicks off with When the Camellia Blooms. In this K-drama, Gong Hyo-jin stars as a single mother named Oh Dong-baek who moves to a small town called Ongsan. There, she opens a bar called Camellia— and contends with local gossips, rude customers, and even a serial killer. Meanwhile, a police officer named Hwang Yong-sik (Kang Ha-neul) becomes enamored with Oh.
When the Camellia Blooms enjoyed great viewer reception, garnering 23.8% of Korean audience share for its finale. Great acting and a well-written storyline helped make the drama especially captivating. Its small town setting and single mother lead also differ from many K-dramas, which often occur in Seoul and have younger female protagonists. Given how women’s social status y was a prominent topic in Korea during 2019, When the Camellia Blooms‘ strong female-led story was quite societally relevant as well.
10. Love Alarm
Starring: Kim So-hyun, Jung Ga-ram, Song Kang | Genre: Romance, School, Comedy, Friendship
On the surface, Love Alarm might seem like another standard teen romance drama. If you enjoy such dramas, then great—the show does pretty well at executing upon that formula. However, if you want a Korean drama that has more meaning, Love Alarm can check that box too.
Set in a high school, the drama imagines a world in which people use an app called a “Love Alarm” to find romantic matches. In this world, a popular kid named Hwang Sun-oh (Song Kang) develops feelings for an orphaned girl named Kim Jo-jo (Kim So-hyun) amidst the societal expectations and stresses that come with using Love Alarms.
Though Love Alarm isn’t depressing, it has echoes of the popular dystopian series Black Mirror. In many scenes, the drama highlights the self-esteem and mental health issues that come from social media. As debates around social media’s ill effects rage, Love Alarm feels especially timely.
Learn more about Love Alarm in our full-length review.
9. Arthdal Chronicles
Starring: Jang Dong-gun, Song Joong-ki, Kim Ji-won | Genre: Fantasy, Action, Romance
Viewers who loved Song Joong-ki in 2016’s Descendants of the Sun will be pleased with Arthdal Chronicles—which sees Song return as a K-drama lead. In this drama, Song, Jang Dong-gun, and Kim Ji-won star as the three protagonists. As inhabitants of the city of Arthdal in a mythical land called Arth, the three protagonists must contend with tribal politics and romantic travails as they aspire for power and redemption.
Arthdal Chronicles feels a bit like a Korean version of the American HBO series Game of Thrones—which isn’t a bad thing. Those who enjoy intricate world-building, power struggles, and high production quality will find that Arthdal Chronicles gives Game of Thrones a run for its money. As a Korean drama, Arthdal Chronicles also is slightly more tame than Game of Thrones; this might be good news for those turned off by Game of Thrones‘ reputation for lurid violence and lasciviousness.
Overall, we feel Arthdal Chronicles deserves a place on this list of 2019’s top K-dramas especially for high entertainment value. It’s one of the more ambitious and epic productions from the Korean drama-sphere in 2019.
8. Romance Is a Bonus Book
Starring: Lee Na-young, Lee Jong-suk, Jung Yoo-jin, Wi Ha-joon | Genre: Romantic Comedy
Fans of Lee Jong-suk will likely enjoy Romance Is a Bonus Book, which marks his last Korean drama performance before doing military service.
In this K-drama, Lee stars as Cha Eun-ho, a handsome editor-in-chief of a publishing company. Lee Na-young plays the female lead opposite him, a single mother named Kang Dan-yi who used to be a great copywriter but has lost her shine. Desperate for a job, Kang lies to gain employment at Cha’s company—and the two develop feelings for each other.
If you enjoy Korean dramas where the female lead is older than the male lead, Romance Is a Bonus Book is worth a watch. Besides having a decent storyline, Romance Is a Bonus Book also contains interesting commentary around marriage, age, parenthood, and other aspects of human existence and interpersonal relationships.
7. The Crowned Clown
Starring: Yeo Jin-goo, Lee Se-young | Genre: Historical/Period, Romantic Comedy
If you enjoy period dramas, The Crowned Clown may suit your fancy. Inspired by Masquerade—one of South Korea’s most popular films of all time—this K-drama depicts how the King of Joseon puts a clown who looks just like him on the throne in order to escape vicious power struggles.
Yeo Jin-goo plays both the king and the clown with great skill. Meanwhile, Lee Se-young plays the Joseon queen, which the clown develops a romantic interest in. Besides great acting, The Crowned Clown also contains a lot of juicy political maneuvering that’s both thought-provoking and suspenseful. It’s no wonder that The Crowned Clown topped audience ratings upon its release.
6. The Fiery Priest
Starring: Kim Nam-gil, Kim Sung-kyun, Lee Ha-nee | Genre: Comedy, Crime, Mystery
Kim Nam-gil stars as a priest named Kim Hae-il, who has a “fiery” temper and the fighting skills to back it up. After a senior priest’s mysterious death, Kim teams up with an ambitious prosecutor (played by Lee Ha-nee) and bumbling detective (played by Kim Sung-kyun) to uncover the truth.
The Fiery Priest was an unexpected, breakout hit. It garnered 16.1% average nationwide (Korea) audience share across its broadcast period. Viewers who enjoy action and comedy will love The Fiery Priest. There’s plenty of fight scenes, the the three protagonists have excellent chemistry and complementary personality traits.
5. Designated Survivor: 60 Days
Starring: Ji Jin-hee, Lee Joon-hyuk, Heo Jun-ho, Kang Han-na, Bae Jong-ok | Genre: Political, Thriller, Conspiracy
Adapted from an eponymous American series, Designated Survivor: 60 Days is a thrilling drama that gives viewers an easy taste of Korean politics.
The series begins when unknown perpetrators bomb Korea’s National Assembly building, killing the president and most high officials. This leaves bookish environment minister Park Mu-jin (Ji Jin-hee) as the Acting President according to Korea’s constitution. With 60 days before elections, Park must bring the bombers to justice while fighting for political survival.
Designated Survivor: 60 Days offers a great balance between political details and accessible entertainment. It offers scenes like free trade agreement negotiations that’ll please politics enthusiasts, but also contains plenty of action that anybody can enjoy.
Learn more in our full-length review of Designated Survivor: 60 Days.
4. Crash Landing On You
Starring: Hyun Bin, Son Ye-jin | Genre: Romantic Comedy, Political
At Cinema Escapist, we enjoy analyzing North-South Korean relations. Therefore, we felt quite pleased when Crash Landing On You came out to great audience reception.
In this romantic comedy drama, Son Ye-jin stars as a rich South Korean heiress who accidentally lands in North Korea after a paragliding accident. A handsome North Korean army captain (played by Hyun Bin) rescues her. Despite geopolitical obstacles, the two fall in love.
Son Ye-jin and Hyun bin have excellent chemistry in Crash Landing On You, and the drama has great pacing and production value. Those who aren’t romance fans can also enjoy Crash Landing On You. It has many insightful observations about regular North Korean life that we’ve never seen on any other K-drama.
Learn more in our full review of Crash Landing On You!
Starring: Lee Seung-gi, Bae Suzy | Genre: Conspiracy, Action, Thriller, Espionage
Fake news and conspiracies were hot topics during 2019, and the Korean drama Vagabond incorporated them into a binge-worthy narrative.
Lee Seung-gi stars as a stuntman named Cha Dal-geon, who loses his beloved nephew in a mysterious airplane crash. Cha realizes the crash isn’t an accident—and ends up teaming up with National Intelligence Service agent Go Hae-ri (played by Bae Suzy) to uncover a conspiracy that ensnares the highest rungs of corporate and political power in Korea.
Filmed in Morocco and Korea, Vagabond evokes other K-drama hits like Descendants of the Sun, Iris, and Memories of the Alhambra through its ambitious globe-trotting scope. The series never has a dull moment; every episode has gunfights, fistfights, or some action scene that takes full advantage of Cha Dal-geon’s stuntman status and Go Hae-ri’s training as a spy. Furthermore, Vagabond contains relevant social commentary around military-industrial complexes and government corruption, which’ll please viewers looking for a more political flavor to their K-dramas.
Learn more in our full review of Vagabond!
2. Chief of Staff
Starring: Lee Jung-jae, Shin Mi-na, and Lee Elijah | Genre: Political
When Chief of Staff first came out, we gave it a lukewarm review based on the first few episodes. However, the series got a lot better as it progressed; we’ve never been happier to see our first impressions destroyed.
First of all, Chief of Staff doesn’t feel like a traditional K-drama with melodrama and excessive romance—and we love that. Instead, it takes after American political shows like The West Wing and House of Cards in offering a realistic, detailed look at the inner workings of Korea’s democracy.
The show focuses on Jang Tae-jun (played by Lee Jung-jae), who starts off as the chief of staff to a powerful legislator. Jang has a reputation as a ruthlessly efficient operator—and he aspires to be a legislator himself, tradeoffs be damned. While Chief of Staff starts off slowly, by the halfway point of season one (happily, there’s a second season already out) there’s blood in the water and lots of juicy intrigue that keeps you binge-ing onwards.
By going in a different direction from traditional K-dramas and deploying excellent acting and production value, Chief of Staff became one of the most popular Korean dramas of 2019. It’s not only a testament to the quality of Korea’s television productions, but also evidence that Korea’s democracy has matured enough to make such realistic political shows.
Read our (different) first impressions of Chief of Staff in our full review.
1. Hotel del Luna
Starring: IU (Lee Ji-eun), Yeo Jin-goo, Jung Dong-hwan, Lee Tae-sun, Kang Mi-na | Genre: Fantasy, Romance, Comedy
Topping off our list of 2019’s best Korean dramas is Hotel del Luna. With great storytelling, exceptional acting from an all-star cast, high production quality, and rollicking humor, Hotel del Luna is worth binge-ing through and even rewatching.
Renowned singer IU steals the show as Jang Man-wol, an eternally young woman who’s been cursed with running a hotel for ghosts (called the Hotel del Luna) for the past 1300 years. Through some subterfuge, Jang recruits a young man named Koo Chan-sung (played by Yeo Jin-goo) to become her hotel’s new manager. Throughout the show, Koo must deal with Jang’s fickle whims and assist ghosts with unfinished business in the mortal world.
Hotel del Luna has a little bit of everything—fantasy, romance, action, mystery, and laughs. IU’s acting is especially commendable. She makes Jang Man-wol one of the most captivating and memorable characters in K-drama history, with a winning combination of sass and sensitivity. It’s no surprise that, according to Nielsen, Hotel del Luna is also the highest rated Korean drama that started broadcasting in 2019.
An honorable mention: if you want to see more of IU’s acting, check out the Netflix anthology Persona.
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