Korean drama Lee Byung-hun and Lee Byung-hun an actor and actress played in Mr. Shunshine Korean drama
Korean drama Lee Byung-hun and Lee Byung-hun an actor and actress played in Mr. Shunshine Korean drama

The Best: 7 Highest-Viewed Korean Dramas

Korea is having its time in the spotlight due to the Hallyu wave, not only when it comes to Kpop groups like BTS, but in every other realm of media imaginable. One of the most popular items to come out of Korea in the past decade is Korea’s increasingly popular Korean Dramas. Everyone has an opinion on which KDrama is the best. While opinions can vary wildly, the viewership of the shows should definitely be given consideration. Here are the 7 best Korean Dramas with their ratings, as per Nielsen Korea viewership.

#1 The World of the Married (2020)

The World of the Married 2020

The World of the Married set records at its premier this year as it received a 16.9% viewership rating, meaning almost 1/5th of TVs were tuned to the show. After the second episode, it became the first JTVC series to hit double-digit ratings. The plot stars Kim Hee-ae as a well-respected doctor with a husband who betrays her, played by Park Hae-joon.

Kim’s character, Ji Sun Woo, is a successful doctor married to Lee Tae Oh, an up-and-coming director. Sun Woo thinks that she has everything and has a happy family with her husband and her teenage son… until she realizes she has been lied to and betrayed. Not only has her husband has been having an affair with a younger woman, but her friends have also known about the secret relationship. Upon finding out that everyone knew but her for the past two years, and that her friends even accompanied the husband and his mistress on a group trip, Sun Woo decides to get revenge in the best most painful and damaging way possible to ruin her husband. 

As the story unfolds, however, what begins as a simple plot for revenge changes into a complicated drama where the relationship of ‘marriage’ is explored in these two’s twisted back and forth of trying to get revenge, be without the other person, and then realizing that they are inextricably connected together in this bond of ‘marriage’. It’s an interesting view that will leave you hooked because it will have you empathize, scream, and be shocked at the various plot twists that unfold as you see how far people are willing to go for the sake of revenge. 

#2 Mr. Sunshine (2018)

Mr. Sunshine 2018

Mr. Sunshine is a period drama centering on a U.S. American Marine Corps officer born in Korea played by Lee Byung-hun, and who returns to Korea during a time when it’s being threatened by the outside forces of colonization. He meets a noblewoman played by Kim Tae-ri. It has a plot rich in history and strong female leads. It had an overall 13% viewership rating, with a peak rating of 18.1% for the spot of the top Kdrama of 2018.

Although it had a great viewership rating, it has been criticized for being historically inaccurate and portraying Japan too sympathetically. 

The plot begins when Eugene Choi, the character played by actor Lee Byung-hun, is born but soon goes to the U.S. He is born as a slave, but he manages to escape to a new life in America by going on the 1871 U.S. expedition to Korea.

When he goes to the U.S, he ends up becoming a Marine officer in and is shipped off to the Spanish-American war. When he returns to America, he is treated and separated from others because of his Korean heritage. However, when he is made in to an U.S. Acting Consul and goes to Korea, he is treated as an American by his fellow Koreans.

During the War, he meets Go Ae-Shin, the main female character played by actress Kim Tae-Ri. However, she is a member of the Righteous Army, a a militia group that formed in response to the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula. During the period of Japanese invasion of Korea, scholars, farmers, and former army men gathered together to form militia groups that went against the Japanese army and fought for an independent Korean country. They were the ones that formed the basis of the later Korean independence movements that began in the 1920s and led to the independence of Korea from Japanese occupation in 1945. There were many righteous armies that formed at that time.

Although they fall in love, their love hits obstacles of class differences as well as the pesky fact that Ae-shin is actually engaged to be married to some other guy — a rich nobleman that has been set up for her by her family. To add to the love triangle (rectangle?) another man, a samurai named Goo Dong-Mae, played by Yoo Yeon-Seok, falls in love with her.

Eugene gets involved in a plot by the Japanese government to colonize Korea and finds himself in the middle of a conflict: where does his loyalty lie? With his birth country that he escaped and the woman that he loves? With his army and new country that he has sworn allegiance to? To the Japanese powers that are the powerful and influential?

#3 Goblin (2016-2017)

Goblin: Guardian: The Lonely and Great Godly

Goblin stars Gong Yoo and Kim Go-eun. This unique story is about a god-like goblin who desires to end his cursed immortal life and the bride who can help him achieve that. Gong Yoo walked away from this series with the Baeksang Arts Awards’ Best Actor award. It had an overall 12.9% viewership rating.

Kim Shin is a vengeful spirit (goblin). He is not man, he is not God with a capital G. But he is one who is cursed by the spirits above to be immortal and live his life in torment over the blood he has shed as a ruthless soldier and the blood of his family that were shed on his behalf. Kim Shin, played by Gong Yoo, was a highly successful military general in the Goryeo Dynasty, working under a young king. Because of his victories in war, Gong Yoo is revered by the people of the country and rumors start entering the King’s ears that Kim Shin will soon replace the king. Placing these words into the young king’s heart is a power-hungry minister, Park Joong-heon, who wants to have the young king under his control so that he can act as the true king. As a result, Kim Shin is framed and unfairly killed — while his entire family, including his younger sister, Kim Sun, the king’s wife after she refuses to choose the king over her brother.

As retribution for all the deaths he caused while protecting his country, he comes an immortal goblin, who has supernatural powers and is doomed to remain eternally cursed with the weight of his guilt. The only hope the goblin has of escaping this life is finding the Goblin’s bride, someone who can pull the sword out of his heart and end his curse of immortality.

The drama unfolds as Kim Shin finally meets the Goblin’s bride, Ji Eun-Tak, played by popular actress Kim Go-Eun. When they meet, Eun-Take is a high school student who is spunky and brave, despite facing harassment and abuse from her aunt’s family at home, who has taken her in after her mother died. The Goblin and the Goblin’s bride fall in love, but there are many forces out there to try to bring an end to this fated romance, including the Grim Reaper, played by Lee Dong-Wook. The Grim Reaper, however, also has his own connections with the Goblin, the Goblin’s sister, and Eun-Tak that later become revealed and he becomes an ally, rather than an enemy.

#4 Sky Castle (2018-2019)

Sky Castle

Sky Castle didn’t start out as a popular show, but by the end of the series it had achieved a 23.8 viewership rating. It focuses on the main character played by Yum Jung-ah, and rich families from an affluent neighborhood competing to send their children to the best school in the country. It deals satirically with the societal issue of class and the competitiveness of education. Nielsen gave it 12.5%.

#5 Reply 1988 (2015-2016)

Reply Series Reply 1988

Reply 1988 received a 12.4% Nielsen rating. It’s a romance comedy without the melodramatic romances, revenge, and the like. It tries to tell a normal story about normal people and the friends and families surrounding them. It stars Park Bo-gum and Lee Hye-ri as playful teenegers. It won Best New Actor and Best Director awards.

#6 Crash Landing on You (2019-2020)

Crash Landing on You

The premise of Crash Landing on You is a South Korean heiress who lands on North Korean soil while paragliding. It stars a soldier played by Hyun Bin and Son Ye-jin as the female lead. He promises to return her home, but quickly falls in love. It received a 12.2% Nielsen rating.

Crash Landing On You: An In-Depth Review

Have you ever fantasized about some freak tornado picking you up and gently landing you into the arms of your forever soul mate? Well you can see this fantasy play out by watching Crash Landing On You, a Korean soap opera making waves on Netflix. The story is about a millionaire heiress, Yoon Se-ri (Son Ye-jin), who has a passion for paragliding. One fateful day when she is out paragliding, a tornado grabs her and deposits her in a tree across the border in the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea. As she is struggling with the straps that have her dangling high up on the tree while also making calls on her cell phone, a group of soldiers come to investigate the commotion. Se-ri’s eventual love interest, Captain Ri (Hyun Bin), happens to be one of the soldiers.

Can Love Scale All Mountains?

It is quite clear from the first episode that Crash Landing On You stays true to South Korea’s soap opera formula. That is the two protagonists in the show face challenges of mountainous proportions that stand between them and their love. As you know, the South and the North are not in friendly terms and this is skillfully highlighted in the show. This is probably because one of the people on the writer’s team for the K-Romance is actually a real North Korean defector.

“I only have one shadow when the sun comes up, and not even a shadow when there’s no sun above. That’s my life in South Korea.”  

Kwak Moon-wan, article on Subin.kim

Kwak Moon-wan served with the North Korean elite Supreme Guard Command which gave him the privilege of working overseas. However, when he was ordered to return to Pyongyang in 2004, he learned that the reason for the order was that one of his friends in Moscow had reported some of the things he had said in a private conversation. He decided to defect without his wife and son. Just like him, the two main characters in the show have to make choices that go against their nations. Then there is also the fact that Se-ri is a rich business woman with almost everything money can buy while Captain Ri is no stranger to poverty. Kwak Moon-wan is in the perfect position to portray North Korean life, especially life in the North Korean military.

Korean Rom-com

But despite the Crash Landing On You’s a very sensitive storyline that includes the protagonists avoiding death by a whisker a couple of times, the show is actually a rom-com that portrays a three-dimensional view of North Korea. The two protagonists have several comedic moments but it is Captain Ri’s loyal soldiers that deliver most of the comedy. Crash Landing On You has already been acclaimed as one of the highest-rated Korean dramas. It hooks you right from the start because of its realistic storyline and the challenges the two protagonists have to face in order for them to stay in love.

#7 Itaewon Class (2020)

This is a webtoon-based drama and was one of the best series of early 2020 thanks to its relatable characters. An ex-convict is played by Park Seo-joon. He works hard to become a big name in the restaurant industry. Kim Da-mi‘s character literally kicks butt. Nielsen rating: 11.8%

Itaewon Class is a K-drama full of fun crazy characters, and that’s where it draws its strengths. In the first episode, the main character, Park Sae-Ro-Yi, punches a classmate for bullying another classmate. It turns out that the bully, Jang Geun-Won, is the son of a restaurant mogul, CEO Jang Dae-Hee, who happens to be Park Sae-Ro-Yi’s father’s employer. This leads to a series of adverse events that include the death of Park Sae-Ro-Yi’s father at the hands of Jang Geun-Won.

The Fun “Crazy” Team

Like all honest sons in every soap operas and K-dramas, Park Sae-Ro-Yi vows revenge against CEO Jang Dae-Hee and his restaurant business Jagga. He forms a team consisting of a sociopath, a transgender, a half black half Korean, and a high school dropout, to help him start his own business. All these characters represent issues that the South Korean society still stigmatizes to different extents. For example, if you are a high school dropout, you will be viewed merely as a loser, but a transgender person may be seen as abnormal and unacceptable in South Korea.

Foreigners In South Korea

Another touchy issue in South Korea is that of foreigners, especially multicultural children. Kim To-ni or Toni Kim, the half-African and half-Korean character in Itaewon Class, faces different forms of prejudice. For example, he gets turned away from a bar because of his skin color, and people assume he cannot speak Korean. Kim To-ni traveled to Korea from Guinea to find his Korean father.

South Korea is a country that has largely remained homogenous from its inception, which means it is not as multicultural as the United States. While the attitudes towards foreigners are changing quickly, you may still be treated as an outsider no matter how good your Korean skill is or how long you have lived in the country. Hopefully the character Kim To-ni may help change attitudes faster.

Why You Should Watch Itaewon Class

The show addresses issues of race and gender in a way that keeps you invested in the stories around the characters’ lives. A more general description of Itaewon Class is that it is a tale of underdogs teaming up to face off against a well-funded and ruthless villain, CEO Jang. As they go through this journey, you will get to see them fall in love, challenge stereotypes, and grow as human beings. You can watch Itaewon Class on Netflix.

Final Thoughts 

Regardless of whether any of these made your personal top 7, I hope they provide you with an excellent place to start or recommendations on where to go next for the best Korean Dramas. Check out KDrama blogs like dramabeans.com for more great recommendations. Viki is probably the number one KDrama streaming platform if you want the largest variety of dramas possible. What are you waiting for? 

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