100 Must-Watch Korean Dramas In The Last 20 Years
The best Korean dramas are the most memorable ones.
For Korean drama newbie followers, the shortcut to familiarizing themselves through the order of watching dramas will be to seek the help from online recommendations. Lucky for those people, K-Drama following has a diligent team of global bloggers who will always generously write reviews or alarm the fan base on which stories to ditch or to keep.
But then, how do we validate all those “Top Korean Drama Lists” that the world wide web recommends us?
It is normal to join the bandwagon, but in the case of K-Drama following, the renowned actors with stable Hallyu following benefit on their popularity due to their fan bases’ solid loyalty.
And you know what happens when a drama yields a strong social media presence, it becomes a free pass to claim the “must-watch K-drama” badge regardless if the plot is shallow, or if it strategically uses fan service magic.
Another tricky part to consider in creating a watch list is whether to believe the numbers or the veteran reviewers. What appeals to the global watchers may not earn the interest of domestic viewers from which the most commonly recognized ratings are always derived from.
A good example of this theory is the battle between period and trendy dramas. Historical dramas easily attracts following from the locals hence raking in impressive scores, but the online buzz generated from global fans, leans more to trendy dramas of predictable or inventive themes which are often layered with romantic elements.
Korean dramas have continuously changed their cinematic landscape, with variations in the established genres based on the themes bravely explored by the pool of creative writers. Hence, the viewers benefit on receiving amazing stories.
From that dilemma, we have scoured our memories of the best dramas seen in the last 20 years. So here it is, a drama suggestion guide that we collated to tailor fit your preferences.
If you want to roll in youthful romance…
Set in a school or a neighborhood, youth dramas usually generates strong online raves owing to their refreshing mood that would not require viewers to involve tear ducts and brain activity in processing the story.
KBS2 TV’s “school series” and tvN’s “Reply series” are perennial favorites tackling first love stories which pushed the popularity of the actors who starred in those dramas. But more campus romance narratives have been showing impressive numbers in the recent years.
Our favorite picks include…
1. Reply 1988 (2015)
Because it is a nostalgic growing up story that will remind you of the neighborhood you grew up with along with the memories you shared with your friends and family…
2. Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo (2016)
Bok Joo taught us that we have all the license to be happy, stupid, hopeful and sad when you are chasing your college romance.
3. Reply 1997 (2012)
Any fan girl can relate to the hilarious journey of the lead girl who claims her fan girl crazy dreams and real romance.
4. Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010)
This series proved that historical drama can still be sweet and fun. Youthful and flirty, but thrilling with character conflicts and political conspiracies.
5. Boys Over Flowers (2009)
Because it is not perfect, but the addicting effect can be enjoyed at different years that you watched it.
6. My ID is Gangnam Beauty (2018)
Discovering Cha Eun Woo is therapeutic, not to mention true love affirming. *wink
7. Playful Kiss (2010)
Derived from a popular shoju manga, Mischievous Kiss tells the story of a high school girl who perseveres in claiming her first love through her heartfelt intentions.
8. Flower-boy Ramyun Shop (2011)
Noona romance and second lead syndrome are best prepared with a bowl of ramyun. The charming story of a woman torn between two estranged brothers is a feel good fix, brimming with sweet moments and working on personal dreams.
If you want to play detective, chase serial killers and catch crimes…
Cop stories have been partnering well with serial killers and organized syndicates in generating the most nerve-wrecking crime dramas in the last few years. From classic favorites Time Between The Dog and Wolf, Iris and Athena, it gets better with resonating narratives as depicted in The Chaser, Heartless City, Gap Dong, Bad Guys, I Remember You, Mrs. Cop, and Voice.
In the last two years, it has since evolved to detective tales, with inventive plot tweaks involving fantasy and heist elements such as Signal, Task Force 38, Circle, Tunnel, Duel and Black.
9. Heartless City (2013)
Its intoxicating mood and pulsating romantic elements fit its noir-crime story premise well.
10. Voice Franchise (2017, 2018, 2019)
The taste of raw and gritty serial-killer chase that never downshifts its momentum has been successfully achieved by this franchise series.
11. The Chaser (2012)
Tautly written script of a detective on a justice-seeking spree to avenge his family is just amazing.
12. City Hunter (2011)
Notching a perfect weaving of story, you would appreciate the plot and the amazing showdowns. The love pairing of Park Min Young and Lee Min Ho is just a bonus.
13. Phantom (2012)
Because the escalation of thrill in fighting off cyber crime through So Ji Sub’s lead is just awesome.
14. Signal (2016)
Thrill is doubled and keeps getting better when two police officers at different times join forces to bring justice to life.
15. Partners for Justice 1 & 2 (2018, 2019)
Baek Beom and his team can smartly prove crimes without unnecessary drama and with ample smarts.
16. Time Between Dog and Wolf (2007)
Lee Jun Ki’s claim to fame as one of the most reliable actors in action genre can be traced to this series.
17. IRIS (2009)
Polished and star-studded, this classic KBS drama is a must-watch spy story.
If you want to delve on Korean law and justice system…
Often associated with crime stories, courtroom dramas are always present in each K-Drama season. Our picks below have featured superb screenplay and portrayals.
18. Stranger (2017)
Stranger chooses to be straightforward in presenting the story, rather than mixing sub stories to prolong and force the mystery.
19. Punch (2014)
Punch threads on a dying man’s man quest to intellectually brawl with his superiors in the Prosecutor’s office. The stake is always at the highest level as the people involved raced to protect their families, reputations and personal ambitions. It also has had Kim Rae Won at his best.
20. Miss Hammurabi (2018)
Weighing the judgment on who deserves to be gratified, Miss Hammurabi gives off a consoling effect as it courageously probes in showing how human flaws and pains either motivate or shatter a person.
21. Defendant (2018)
Redemption at its sweetest with Ji Sung’s vengeance plan.
If you want to enter different corporate worlds and learn a thing or two about career and life…
Cop, crime and medical themes often make up the basic plot of the seasonal roster of Korean dramas. Occasionally, the viewers are given stories set in interesting workplaces.
22. Romantic Doctor Teacher Kim (2017)
Romantic Doctor Teacher Kim progresses seamlessly with polished and make-sense connections in the surgeries included in the plot. Neat and well-written its brilliant cast portrayal make its high-rating run deserve the hype it received.
23. Romance is a Bonus Book (2019)
From lessons about women’s strength, individualism and friendship, its ultimate message is finding one’s purpose.
24. Misaeng (2014)
Without frills, it is an inspiring story to watch – for anyone on board and soon to board onto the cruel corporate world.
25. Worlds Within (2008)
Acquainted for a long time, and once lovers, the Hyun Bin and Song Hye Kyo’s journey to discover why their love is true even then; and why it feels true even years after. The heartfelt traverse of a couple working in the drama production team is under-appreciated, but it is one drama that you’ll exclaim, “Hey this story happens in real life!”
26. Search: WWW (2019)
Surfing to Internet web portal industry, amidst the cutthroat competition of its female-dominated cast; Search: WWW gives valuable lessons on personal redemption, career dreams and building relationship.
27. City Hall (2009)
With star writer Kim Eun Sook’s long list of hit dramas, City Hall is one drama that keeps its heartfelt message without overly romanticizing the idea of love.
If you want to step into a whole new world…
A plethora of supernatural themed dramas emerged in the past few years covering majority of genres, which have been particularly loved by the fan base. Time travelers, deities, immortal beings, ghosts, human-with-supernatural powers have graced K-Dramaland and provided memorable characters in the most recent years.
28. Goblin (2016)
It plays a melodious romance symphony crafted by brilliant writing and powered by a stellar cast.
29. My Love from the Star (2013)
Kim Soo Hyun and Jun Ji Hyun make an alien-top actress romance story possible and believable.
30. Secret Garden (2010)
Romance and the quirky body-swapping fantasy may sound odd, yet feels great to watch.
31. The Master’s Sun (2013)
Nothing beats a you-and-me-against-my-ghost-seeing-ability love story. The Master’s Sun nicely blends the romance which shows the love pairing growing together while understanding why they both need each other. It impresses with life and love lessons on how being in a relationship is not half-loving yourself and half-loving the other person. It should be loving the person with all you can.
32. While You Were Sleeping (2017)
Achieving a polished romance in connected dreams setting is truly therapeutic. While You Were Sleeping switches from comic highs, courtroom thrills and heart-fluttering moments while treading on the exciting fantasy landscape.
33. W: Two Worlds (2016)
The manhwa-crossing romance, which is made even more inviting by Lee Jong Suk and Han Hyo Joo’s charms, certainly allows the creatively-conceived feast to be worthy of your weekend binge.
34. My Girlfriend is a Gumiho (2010)
This supernatural spectacle fused with local folklore brings a heroine like no other, and a lead man who braves the odds just to be with the woman he loves.
35. The Legend of the Blue Sea (2016)
Time-transcending romance sweetens this mermaid-conman love story. The base fairy tale approach that seems to be familiar to anyone is most likely the key ingredient to The Legend of the Blue Sea‘s delightful run.
36. Queen In Hyun’s Man (2012)
In the year when time-traveling series swept K-Dramaland, Queen In Hyun’s Man mocked the rules of the plot by its solid and smart execution.
37. Hotel Del Luna (2019)
Proving spooky-romance is their turf, Hong sisters scored another stunning series powered by Lee Ji Eun and Yeo Jin Goo in Hotel Del Luna. A hotelier and plucky immortal hotel CEO run a hotel with eerie clientele. Not only does it parade memorable cameos, the drama’s lessons on life, love and letting go loops in the mind won’t go away.
If you want to immerse in Korean history…
Making period-set dramas take modern feel is part of the reason why watching it now is not anymore tedious. Unlike before when episodes run till forever with incessant plot shifts and new characters introduced each story arc.
Additionally, more stories covering the waning part of Joseon period have been produced in the most recent years. Nevertheless, classic period dramas are a must-watch if you are starting to go fond on Korean historical dramas.
38. The Book of Three Han (2006)
Discovering Korean history in Jumong’s perspective is a must.
39. Queen Seon Deok (2009)
Experiencing how scary true blooded Korean historical drama villains can be is the highlight of this series.
40. Six Flying Dragons (2015)
Because it is a staple to learn how the founding of Joseon happened.
41. A Jewel in the Palace (2003)
Empowering women to pursue their dreams is the theme of this classic period series.
42. Mr. Sunshine (2018)
Defining patriotism in five point of views makes you love your country even more.
43. Bridal Mask (2012)
Inspiring you to tap your inner hero to be a remarkable citizen is what Bridal Mask wants you to be.
44. Tree With Deep Roots (2011)
Learning about Korea’s alphabet has never been that gripping as how Tree With Deep Roots narrated it.
45. The Slave Hunters (2010)
The affecting sentiment of Jang Hyuk’s character pictured in a lavish cinematography and deft writing makes The Slave Hunter visually vibrant and engaging. Moving to an enthralling direction, the unique development of the love triangle pushes any viewer to want for more.
If you want to have a good cry…
Sometimes, the amount of tears you shed for Korean melodrama does not make it unforgettable. You cry at the actual moment while watching it, but it does not leave a lingering effect. But there are stunningly captured Korean melodramas that remain carved in the viewers’ hearts, because of how beautifully and emotionally they were imagined.
46. Uncontrollably Fond (2016)
In classic melodrama vibe but sound modern approach, the story of a top star who loved only one woman is bittersweet defined.
47. Queen for Seven Days (2017)
Though not achieving a happy ending fully, this historical masterpiece appeals to people who know that love waits and endures. Queen for Seven Days will challenge your emotional strength in a way that ice cream and chocolates won’t be able to help.
48. Scarlet Heart Ryeo (2016)
Scarlet Heart Ryeo treads on the reality that a happy ending does not measure how great a love can be.
49. Autumn in My Heart (2000)
Succumbing to a bawling mess is normal when you watch Autumn in My Heart, a go-to drama when you need a good cry.
50. Stairway to Heaven (2003)
The thought of thinking about this drama is already making me cry. *chuckles
Prepare rolls of tissues if you want to indulge.
51. Winter Sonata (2002)
Keeping the trademark theme of Endless Love series with childhood connection, first love, and a tragedy or sickness, this series has a happier ending. The love couple, constantly separated by circumstances and the tragic aftermath from an accident, still end up being together.
52. That Winter The Wind Blows (2013)
Jo In Sung and Song Hye Kyo’s small screen pairing produces a stunning melodrama, with ample ardent scenes to engross the audiences’ hearts without bordering to hallow weep fest.
53. The Princess’ Man (2011)
The agonizing yet tender Joseon set-like Romeo-and-Juliet period drama, bravely presents the risks in committing yourself to someone, and the bittersweet pain of coming to terms that love always has casualties.
54. Missing You (2013)
Revenge drama needs not to be overly emotional draining. Yoon Eun Hye, Park Yoo Chun and Yoo Seung Ho prove it in this tearjerker.
55. Sky Castle (2018)
Soaring high throughout its run, four families color the narrative of Sky Castle to intriguing bends. Coupled with proportionate moments for its big cast, its fictional world probes on elite families’ different opinions on supporting their children’s future.
If you want to take a trip to nostalgic K-Drama classics…
Rite of Passage Korean Dramas represents the Korean dramas we first loved. These are the best addictive Korean dramas that will almost guarantee a new convert to sail on the Hallyu wave.
*K-Dramas that are 15 years old and above
56. I’m Sorry, I Love You (2004)
Slowly emerging as a dominating trend last year, healing dramas are conquering K-Drama landscape. 15 years ago, I’m Sorry, I Love You was an emotionally written masterpiece that ironically encourages.
57. Something Happened in Bali (2004)
In a way, the rich-boy-poor-girl and problematic second-lead syndrome elements can be traced to this model tearjerker that refuses to make an apology to its brave ending.
58. Beautiful Days (2001)
A story about two sisters who grew up together at an orphanage and two brothers who detested each other. The characters’ lives get entangled through music and a twist of fate.
59. Lovers in Paris (2004)
Park Shin Young and Lee Dong Gun compete for the love and affection of Kim Jung Eun. From Paris to South Korea, this drama keeps viewers at the edge of their seat with romantic scenes and breathtaking scenery.
60. Save the Last Dance For Me (2004)
Memory loss has been one of the favorite twists in romance stories, and the narrative seeps in heartfelt emotion seamlessly. A beautiful moving story of finding love and falling in love all over again to the same person.
61. Attic Cat (2003)
Circumstances force Kim Rae Won and Jung Da Bin (+) to live together. This early cohabitation themed story warms up the heart and frequently draws smile from anyone who watches it.
62. A Love To Kill (2005)
Cementing Rain’s emotional range as an actor, the heart-wrenching romance deserves the numbers the drama yielded when it was airing. His performance would let you forgive him in the next bad dramas he starred in after.
63. Successful Story of a Bright Girl (2002)
While Fated to Love You might be popular to Jang Hyuk – Jang Na Ra shippers, this cute classic makes up all the rom-com elements that viewers would love.
64. Hello My Teacher (2005)
Gong Yoo and Gong Hyo Jin’s noona romance is a pre-requisite to dramas of the same theme. The happy ending comes after much tribulations, but they satisfyingly achieve it.
If you are a thriller junkie…
65. The Guest (2018)
Exploring the world of shamanism and spirit possession, The Guest, amidst its dark tone, has successfully characterized what makes humanity.
66. Circle (2017)
Narrated in two time lines, Circle, the inventive scifi series, gives a glimpse of post-apocalyptic themed Korean series.
67. Nine (2013)
Nine reruns will still make you watch it again after.
68. Arthdal Chronicles (2019)
Divided in three parts, Arthdal Chronicles notches an enigmatic blend of heroic stories highlighting victories of its lead characters in their personal battles.
69. Kingdom (2019)
Layering history-inspired fiction with modern supernatural element, Netflix original series Kingdom takes you to switching level of thrills which decelerate quickly, only to upsurge the tension with its impressive cliffhangers.
70. Memories of the Alhambra (2018)
Memories of the Alhambra scores high among the dramas seen in the recent years owing to how it keeps surprising with its imaginative premise and well-utilized cast.
If you want to bask in addictive romance stories…
71. Another Miss Oh (2016)
Another Oh Hae Young is not just your typical rom-com drama. It takes pride on its keen perception of the difference between how a man and a woman take on distinct approaches on loving someone while weighing on their pre- conceived inhibitions that the relationship might not work.
72. You’re Beautiful (2009)
Imaginatively sketching that K-Pop romance story we all dream about, You’re Beautiful remains to be another bromance favorite of drama fans. It is sassy and cute, and another Hong sister’s go-to amusement party.
73. My Lovely Sam Soon (2005)
With a heroine who knows what she wants, Samsoon spearheaded one of the earliest dramas that is woman empowering.
74. Princess Hours (2006)
Regardless of the cliches, it is one Cinderella story that never lose its magic.
75. Coffee Prince (2007)
Workplace bromance is quantified to adorable pile of bliss in this Gong Yoo and Yoon Eun Hye starrer.
76. Descendants of the Sun (2016)
Polished and no wasted episode from start to finish.
77. Discovery of Love (2014)
Witnessing how love is lost and found again is the main charm of this endearing series.
78. Strong Woman Do Bong Soon (2017)
Role reversal and ample romance have made this addictive jTBC series a perennial K-Drama fan favorite.
79. Full House (2004)
Cohabitation and bickering are main ingredients to this well-loved rom-com.
80. My Girl (2005)
As one of the forerunners of prototype rom-coms, Lee Dong Wook and Lee Da Hae’s My Girl is an enjoyable watch that would make you hug your pillow tight.
81. Moon Embracing the Sun (2012)
Catapulting Kim Soo Hyun to stardom, this period drama with star-studded cast forged romance and fantasy to a poignant spectacle that can leave the viewers wanting for more.
82. Crash Landing on You (2019)
Validating its euphoric run are impressive numbers accumulated in each chapter. Crash Landing On You joins the group of saccharine K-Drama favorites that would convert a nube spectator into discovering how the life of K-Drama fans are not that bad at all. *wink
83. The Greatest Love (2011)
This love drama staged in the showbiz land exhibits a top actor in his prime and a struggling actress who used to be from a famous girl group but is condemned unfairly by the public’s judgment.
The Greatest Love disarms the viewers from earthly life and draws them to thrive inside a protective romantic bubble. It is done short and sweet, with a basket full of happy hearts delivered personally by cupid to all of us.
84. It’s Okay, That’s Love (2014)
Seamless and unfeigned, It’s Okay That’s Love progresses from warm to romantic; sacrificial to against-all-odds -and eventually to you-were-meant-for-me love story. You will see different faces of love being tackled bravely and painfully in this amazing love story.
If you want to have love-and-life-affirming moments…
Healing romance dramas have seen an unprecedented growth in the last few years. Powered with smart and heartfelt screenplay, the next set of series makes you pick it occasionally when you crave for a soothing binge.
85. Because This is My First Life (2017)
Leaving traces of feel-good love affirming moments that would make you smile after each chapter, this series is a guaranteed gift for those craving for a soothing romance story.
Because This Is My First Life is a tale that would easily grow fond in your heart. If you want to deviate from the standard romance stories, with a relaxing drama that is intuitively penned, an overnight marathon of Se Hee and the gangs’ love journey will make you sigh and ponder about the sweet little moments of being in love.
86. Something in the Rain (2018)
Taking subtle storytelling that is focused on the bliss and complication of the love tale, viewers would be immersed to cheer for the fulfillment of the romance that was belatedly realized, crazily enjoyed, and painfully let go in Something in the Rain.
87. The Smile has Left Your Eyes (2018)
Not for the faint-hearted, The Smile Has Left Your Eyes piles up tragic moments, ultimately reaching a poignant closure – that would make the viewers clutch their hearts in pain, and yet understand that it is for the best.
88. Scent of a Woman (2011)
Scent of a Woman lets you feel the tears and the optimism of a dying woman, who has deprived herself of the many comforts of life, only to wake up one day, stumbling on an unfortunate news that she is bound to die.
89. Personal Taste (2010)
Brimming with love and life lessons for women to learn, the heroine provides insights on how focusing on personal dreams should come first before frustrations.
90. Go Back Couple (2017)
Go Back Couple sends you to a whirlwind of emotions with its pensive mood of the joys and pain of being in love.
The trip back to 18 years with the cast is a sweet nostalgia of what it feels to love the first time, and a bitter melancholia of the romance you painfully have to let go because it can’t work anymore.
If you want to roll in laughter while celebrating life and friendship…
91. Welcome to Waikiki (2018)
Pick this up when you are having a bad day or a bad relationship. Welcome to Waikiki is a blast of laughter that can only leave you happy memories.
92. Fight for my Way (2017)
Fight For My Way incidentally creates its own kind of beauty by presenting a cheerful cast, who channels the honest storytelling to a good-humored spectacle.
93. A Gentleman’s Dignity (2012)
Fawning on this blow-up F4 is natural owing to their unmatched friendship and opening anecdotes. The wit, humor and love maturity are ever present until its culmination.
94. Prison Playbook (2017)
A sweet, funny, and at times, painful daily isolated life is sketched vibrantly with ample life pep talks in tvN’s high-rated dramedy. Prison Playbook lets you understand how the mistakes are not supposed to define you as a person. It teaches you that personal battles are given to be won over, and that having a good heart is a blessing at all times.
If you want to meet inspiring and memorable K-Drama characters…
95. When The Camellia Blooms (2019)
Just like every woman who waits for a memorable love, whether it has arrived or not, Dong Baek brims with resilience carved in her life. Albeit struggling to show confidence owing to her history, the kindness deep in her heart sustains the grievances in her life.
When the Camellia Blooms reminds us that happiness is not supposed to be chased. It has to be savored right at the very moment it happens. Although problems decorate life, and it’s not something that we want to welcome – it inevitably arises to make us stronger.
96. My Mister (2018)
Teaching us not to be scared of reaching out to other people for friendship and comfort is one of the many life lessons Lee Ji Eun (IU) left in this despondent yet encouraging series.
97. Healer (2014)
Healer shows a clear picture of how love is meant to be enjoyed at the moment and chased at the right time.
98. Her Private Life (2019)
Hail to the drama that celebrates fangirling and finding true love. Nothing but good vibes celebrating fan girl spirit in Her Private Life. Tidily executed, the series has an energizing habit of presenting its narrative in a bright light as much as possible.
99. Chicago Typewriter (2017)
Smartly written along with top notch acting, Chicago Typewriter is a classy K-Drama experience that embodies a stunningly crafted fiction, which is best served if you watch it with a lover or with your friends.
100. The Fiery Priest (2019)
The Fiery Priest, despite the serious issues it depicted, is an engrossing and fun drama to watch. Kudos to the cast who gave their all to showcase a drama worth watching. All praises to the production crew as well for giving us a series that represented the current community setting. Although there might be some exaggerated approach, it is a necessary element to differentiate reality from fiction.