As it searches for global growth, streaming giant Netflix is riding the Korean Wave by investing heavily in Korean dramas. Regardless of whether you’re a seasoned K-drama addict, or just beginning to explore the medium, Netflix has something for you.
To help you pick from the many K-dramas now available on Netflix, we’ve put together this list of the 11 Best Korean Dramas on Netflix.
Updated for summer 2020, this list of top Korean dramas contains selections from numerous sub-genres including romance, action, historical, and more.
We chose these dramas using three criteria. First, we started with K-dramas that are well-made and entertaining. Then, we looked at which ones contained interesting learnings about Korean culture and society. Finally, we narrowed down to dramas that are Netflix originals. This last part means that all the dramas on this list are always available on Netflix, regardless of your country.
Now, let’s take a look at the top Korean dramas currently streaming on Netflix!
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Starring: Ju Ji-hoon, Ryu Seung-ryong, Bae Doo-na, Kim Sung-kyu, Kim Hye-jun | First released: January 2019
We kick off our list of the best Korean dramas on Netflix with a global favorite—Kingdom. Kingdom blends the zombie genre with the classic setting of a historical period piece. Set in the Joseon period, this K-drama centers around Crown Prince Lee Chang’s (Ju Ji-hoon) simultaneous struggles with a succession crisis and a mysterious zombie plague spreading across the country. The series contains intriguing undertones of class struggle that speak to contemporary Korea’s preoccupation with inequality.
Kingdom was such a hit that it got a second season. Regardless of whether you’ve already watched the first season or not, check out our review of season two (no spoilers!) to learn more about Kingdom.
10. Itaewon Class
Starring: Park Seo-joon, Kim Da-mi, Yoo Jae-myung, Kwon Nara | First released: January 2020
Based on an eponymous webtoon, Itaewon Class is a light-hearted Korean drama that’s not too heavy on romance. Itaewon Class stars Park Seo-joon as a former prison inmate who seeks both revenge and redemption by opening a pub, staffed with social outcasts like himself. The series goes beyond typical K-drama tropes to highlight discrimination in contemporary Korean society against ex-convicts, LGBTQ community members, and mixed-race individuals.
Fans of Park Seo-joon will definitely enjoy Itaewon Class as it further reinforces his versatility as an actor. Itaewon Class combines snazzy visuals, a fun ensemble cast, and a compelling storyline into a binge-worthy drama.
To learn more, check out our full review of Itaewon Class.
Starring: Lee Seung-gi, Bae Suzy, Shin Sung-rok | First released: September 2019
Superstars Lee Seung-gi and Suzy headline the next K-drama on our list, Vagabond. Lee plays a down-on-his-luck stuntman named Cha Dal-gun, whose beloved nephew dies in a plane crash; Suzy plays an upstart National Intelligence Service agent named Go Hae-ri. The two bump into each other when Cha discovers a broader political conspiracy behind the plane crash, and Go is assigned to shepherd him and other crash victims’ family members.
Similar to other popular K-dramas like Descendants of the Sun, Vagabond has some ambitious globe-trotting scenes. The show has numerous scenes along the Mediterranean coasts of Morocco and Spain, and showcases the Korean military and intelligence community’s supposedly global reach. A satisfyingly fast-paced plot, ample suspense, and entertaining action scenes complement Lee Seung-gi and Suzy’s chemistry to make Vagabond one of the top Korean dramas on Netflix.
Learn more about Vagabond in our full-length review!
8. Love Alarm
Starring: Kim So-hyun, Song Kang, Jung Ga-ram | First released: August 2019
High school is a drama in and of itself, and social media makes it even more dramatic.
Enter Love Alarm, set in a fictional high school where a Tinder-like app called a Love Alarm “rings” every time someone within a 10 meter radius “loves” you. Love Alarm doesn’t shy away from the classic triangle of Korean dramas, but it does add a bit of sci-fi and social commentary.
The drama explores self-esteem issues, and how social media makes relationships more superficial. Each episode ends with a note about social media obsession, such as a reminder that “the most powerful number is one [person who loves you].” Love Alarm shines in social commentary that’s increasingly necessary as we realize social media damages both our individual mental health and society’s collective mental health.
Check out our complete review of Love Alarm to learn more!
7. My Holo Love
Starring: Yoon Hyun-min, Ko Sung-hee, Choi Yeo-jin | First released: February 2020
Continuing on the technological theme, our next entry for the best Korean dramas on Netflix involves an AI romantic protagonist. My Holo Love follows a love triangle between marketing manager Han So-yeon, an AI called “Holo,” and Holo’s creator, Nan-do.
On the surface, My Holo Love might seem like a cliched Korean drama with its love triangle. However, the series explores serious themes like whether it’s possible for an AI to feel love, or how technology can help address loneliness in society. The drama is easy to like—it’s light hearted and fun, with a good plot placing that hooks audiences quickly.
Check out our full review of My Holo Love!
6. Memories of the Alhambra
Starring: Hyun Bin, Park Shin-hye | First released: December 2018
While Love Alarm and My Holo Love were quite popular, the most renowned tech-themed Korean drama on Netflix is Memories of the Alhambra.
In Memories, Hyun Bin stars as a handsome tech CEO named Yoo Jin-woo who wants to meet the creator of a super-advanced augmented reality (AR) game set in Spain’s Alhambra palace. However, the game creator suspiciously disappears, and Yoo only finds his sister Jung Hee-joo (Park Shin-hye). Yoo and Jung become embroiled in a broader mystery as the walls between actual reality and augmented reality begin to disappear.
Besides excellent chemistry between Hyun Bin and Park Shin-hye, Memories of the Alhambra offers perhaps the most compelling depiction of AR of any TV show in existence thus far. From virtual medieval Spanish knights strolling the streets of Granada to simulated thunderstorms, the in-game world of Memories contains a multitude of mouth-watering details that make existing AR games like Pokemon Go look primitive. Beautiful cinematography and suspenseful action are cherries on top; it’s no surprise Memories of the Alhambra is one of the most popular K-dramas of all time.
Starring: Jung Yu-mi, Lee Kwang-soo, Bae Sung-woo, Bae Jong-ok | First released: March 2018
Live is a criminally underrated police drama. While the show might not be as popular or meme-worthy as others on this list, it’s perhaps the most thoughtful and grounded Korean drama on Netflix.
In Live, Jung Yu-mi and Lee Kwang-soo star as two rookie cops named Han Jung-oh and Yeom Sang-soo, respectively. After trying hard but failing to find other jobs, the two join a patrol unit of Seoul’s police force. It’s not glamorous work. Unlike those in other police dramas, the characters in Live aren’t hardboiled detectives or swashbuckling SWAT team members—they’re regular beat cops that have to pick up drunkards and deal with petty crime.
However, by avoiding “hotter” police topics, Live shines by providing insight on many of modern South Korean society’s pressing issues. The show addresses youth unemployment, senior poverty, public perceptions of policing, and more.
Most notably, Live contains numerous strong female characters (including protagonist Han Jung-oh) and avoids many romance tropes that plague other Korean dramas. On top of that, the show also contains sobering yet thoughtful explorations about reproductive politics and the persistent sexual harassment that many Korean women face. This doesn’t mean Live is boring or preachy though. This K-drama has excellent character development, nail-biting suspense, and altogether top-notch entertainment value on top of its socially conscious foundation.
4. Designated Survivor: 60 Days
Starring: Ji Jin-hee, Heo Joon-ho, Kang Han-na, Lee Joon-hyuk | First released: July 2019
Those who relish conspiracies and politics will appreciate Designated Survivor: 60 Days. This drama was adapted from American TV show Designated Survivor, but contains many unique elements.
Both Designated Survivor: 60 Days and its American predecessor rely on the same premise: an unambitious, bookish cabinet official assumes the nation’s presidency when a massive bombing kills everyone higher up the rankings. In 60 Days, this official is Environment Minister Park Mu-jin (Ji Jin-hee), a former college professor.
However, unlike his counterpart in the original American series, Park only has 60 days to serve as Acting President according to South Korea’s constitution. This gives Designated Survivor: 60 Days a satisfyingly fast pace as it winds through a gripping conspiracy that touches the highest levels of Korea’s government, military, and industry. The show contains many juicy details around Korean politics, as well as a compelling set of characters that’ll keep your interest until the very end.
Read more about Designated Survivor: 60 Days in our full review.
3. Chief of Staff
Starring: Lee Jung-jae, Shin Min-ah | First released: June 2019
When Chief of Staff first came out on Netflix, we didn’t give it a high appraisal based on the first few episodes. However, as the series went on, it got a lot juicier. In retrospect, we now see Chief of Staff as one of the meatiest Korean political dramas in existence.
In Chief of Staff, Lee Jung-jae plays Jang Tae-jun, the chief of staff to a powerful Korean National Assemblyman. Jang wants to be a legislator himself, and must balance ruthlessness and righteousness to fulfill that desire. Meanwhile, Jang also has a relationship with freshman assemblywoman Kang Seon-yeong, who has her own ambitions.
Even more so than Designated Survivor: 60 Days, Chief of Staff steers away from sensational melodrama and dives into the fascinating minutiae of Korean politics. While the show gets off to a slow start, it eventually spins a gripping web of power plays and moral quandaries that rival those of American political classics like The West Wing. It’s also a great way to see how Korea’s democracy works, and has matured since the end of authoritarian rule.
Learn more in our review of Chief of Staff’s first season.
2. Mr. Sunshine
Starring: Lee Byung-hun, Kim Tae-ri | First released: July 2018
If you have any interest in Korean history, Mr. Sunshine is a must-watch. Even if you’re not interested in Korean history, you’ll probably enjoy watching Lee Byung-hun or Kim Tae-ri—the drama’s two talented lead actors.
Set in the early 1900s, just as Japan is about to colonize Joseon-era Korea, Mr. Sunshine introduces us to a United States Marine Corps officer named Eugene Choi (Lee Byung-hun) who becomes a diplomat in Seoul. Choi has a conflicted relationship with Korea—he was born in the country as a slave, but escaped to the US at a young age. Upon returning to Korea, he finds himself grappling with his identity: is he Korean, or is he American?
Meanwhile, a young noblewoman named Go Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri) shirks patriarchal expectations to join the armed resistance against Japanese encroachment. As Japanese, American, and Korean political interests collide, Go meets Choi—and the two get caught up in a fight for Korea’s future.
With fantastic production quality and a gripping storyline, Mr. Sunshine provides an excellent medium to learn about early 1900’s Korean history and Koreans’ perceptions of Japan. Furthermore, Asian diaspora viewers may appreciate the exploration of Asian-American identity that Eugene Choi’s character provides.
1. Crash Landing On You
Starring: Hyun Bin, Son Ye-jin | First released: December 2019
Our selection for the very best Korean drama on Netflix is Crash Landing On You. This drama is a Cinema Escapist favorite—it’s not only entertaining, but also has an enlightening political dimension with its take on North-South Korea relations.
In Crash Landing On You, “North-South Korea relations” aren’t just state-to-state, they’re person-to-person. The drama centers on a chaebol heiress named Yoon Se-ri (Son Ye-jin) who accidentally crash-lands in North Korea after a paragliding accident. There, she meets Ri Jeong-hyeok, a handsome North Korean army officer played by Hyun Bin. The two quickly fall in love, inter-Korean hostilities be damned.
Crash Landing On You is the latest in a storied tradition of Korean dramas that feature North Korean characters. However, it offers the most thorough portrayal of North Korea we’ve seen in any Korean drama; half the series occurs north of the 38th parallel. The show consulted North Korean defectors during production, and resultantly incorporates many intricate details rarely seen by South Koreans and global audiences. Other defectors have praised the show’s relative accuracy, though noted it may overly romanticize North Korea.
Relatable humor, a juicy romance plot, and dynamic action scenes combined with the novelty of such a comprehensive depiction of North Korea to make Crash Landing On You one of the most popular Korean dramas of all time. Learn more about Crash Landing On You’s magic (and political context) in our full length review!
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