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What Is Unique about a Korean Soap Opera?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Korean television industry’s unique approach to daytime drama has won it an international fan base. Korean soap operas are often romantic dramas or comedies with attractive stars, highly competent writing, and a definite plot that usually ends within a maximum of 200 episodes. This stands in contrast to the soap operas of Mexico or the U.S., which extend story lines over months or years and are not noted for the high quality of their acting or writing. The unique qualities of the Korean soap opera have impressed viewers throughout Asia, the Americas, and the world, via subtitled releases on DVD or the Internet.

In many countries, entertainment product is translated fare imported from other nations, especially from the United States. This does not always serve the importing country well, as the highly sexual and violent content of U.S. programming does not suit nations with different cultural standards. South Korea’s television industry responded by creating its own dramas, with content designed to appeal to its citizens. Historical, cultural, and language components were crafted to give them a broad appeal across the Korean populace.

The Korean soap opera turned out to be quite popular in neighboring countries such as Japan and China. Surprisingly, it was also popular in countries that did not share a culture and history with Korea, such as Egypt, India, and Mexico. These Korean dramas, called k-dramas by fans, were soon imported to the United States, particularly to cities that had large Korean-American populations. The high production values of the k-dramas soon won fans who had no connections to the Pacific Rim. This universal appeal is itself one of the most unique things about the Korean soap opera.

Historical dramas, known in Korean as sa geuk, are among the most popular of the k-drama genre, even though the history they deal with is almost exclusively Korean. Lavish costumes and elaborate martial-arts sequences define this kind of Korean soap opera. It often conforms to the traditional values of Korea, such as Confucianism. Other k-dramas involve modern characters and situations, but maintain a distinctly Korean take on the proceedings.

The rising popularity of the Korean soap opera around the world has been dubbed the Korean wave. Fan clubs and websites are devoted to individual k-dramas or the art form as a whole. Fans trade information on subtitled DVDs and await the latest news on new series coming from Korea. Performers and production crews often use the genre’s popularity to further their careers on an international scale. Korean-American actress Yunjin Kim, for example, got her start in Korean soap operas before landing a starring role on the hit American television series Lost.

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Discussion Comments

By candyquilt — On Aug 12, 2014

I heard that a Korean drama has become very influential in China these days. Apparently, the Chinese have been binge-eating the favorite foods of the main actress in the drama. And each episode is watched billions of times. Wow!

By ysmina — On Aug 11, 2014

@burcinc-- Just watch one or two episodes of a recent, popular Korean soap opera and I'm sure you'll be hooked as well.

There is a reason why Korean soap operas are so popular, because they're very good. They lure me in from the first episode and then I can't wait till the next one to find out what happened. The stories are very creative, I've not seen such stories in American or Latin American soap operas. Oh and another great part about Korean soap operas is the music. The music is so good! One more reason to watch k-dramas.

By burcinc — On Aug 11, 2014

All of my friends at school watch Korean soap operas. They never miss an episode and they're always talking about the stars and what happened in the most recent episode. I've never watched Korean soap operas so I never know what they're talking about. I don't like soap operas in general, so I don't think I will ever watch it. I don't really get what the hype is about.

By Lostnfound — On Aug 07, 2014

@Grivusangel -- The Korean soaps are downright addictive. I love them. The two I'm watching right now are "Temptation" and "Glorious Day." They're both great.

After watching Victor marry Nikki 42 times on "Young and the Restless," and seeing Salem nearly fall into the ocean or whatever on "Days of Our Lives" for 40 years, I was ready for something different, and the Korean soaps are definitely different. I really like them.

Since they run for a finite number of episodes, the storytelling is brisk and they are always reaching toward the goal of finishing the show.

By Grivusangel — On Aug 06, 2014

My cousin loves Korean soap operas. She watches them on a satellite channel, and they're subtitled in English. She says they're much more entertaining than US soap operas.

She said there was one in particular that she loved, and she cried when it ended. She said it was a beautiful story, with great characters and wonderful scenery. She told me the name, but naturally, I can't remember.

It seems like the Korean television shows are better than most Japanese shows, which can be downright strange. Korean shows are apparently better written.

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