There is no doubt that South Korea is one of Asia’s top exporter of music, movies, and television series nowadays. But when did this start and what really launched the so-called Korean Wave, also known as “Hallyu”, or the global popularity of South Korean culture and entertainment to its present status? The year 1999 is often cited as the year that the Korean Wave started to land on foreign soil, the year when several Korean dramas aired in China. But there are several researches that point to years earlier than that.
We have come up with a list of the soap operas that have contributed significantly to the spread of “Hallyu”. The list is by no means a product of a scientific research or an exhaustive one and it doesn’t include the first waves of South Korean television series that played on TV screens outside the country. It just includes the dramas that we believe have really skyrocketed “Hallyu” to what it is today.
Autumn in My Heart (2000)
Autumn in My Heart stars Song Seung-heon, Song Hye-kyo, and Won Bin. It was very successful in South Korea and across Asia.
A child roams into the hospital room where his new-born younger sister is and causes the swapping of his sister’s name card with that of another baby’s. As a teenager, he goes to the same school with the girl that he calls sister and cares so much about. But when a female classmate of hers is hit by a truck and needs a blood transfusion, their lives will change forever. The past incident is revealed and the girls return to their respective parents. The boy has a well-to-do family and the girl he calls sister moves into the restaurant of her poor mother. To leave the past behind, the boy’s family together with his real sister goes to America. They lose touch with the girl left in Korea. Ten years pass by and the boy is now a man (Song Seung-heon). He comes back to Korea and meets his old friend (Won Bin). The friend’s family owns the hotel where the now-woman (Song Hye-kyo) that he calls sister works. In a twist of fate, the two people who once knew each other to be real siblings fall in love with each other. But he has a fiancée, their families are against their love, and his friend, who has also fallen in love with her, proves a tough opponent in her affection. And then, something will come between them yet again and take them apart.
Winter Sonata (2002)
Winter Sonata stars Bae Yong-joon and Choi Ji-woo in the lead roles. It also stars Park Yong-ha and Park Sol-mi. The soap opera is often cited as the series that really kicked off the Korean Wave. It shot Bae Yong-joon to stardom in Asia. In Japan, he rose to a heartthrob status among middle-aged women and was given tight security during his visit in the country.
A student (Bae Yong-joon) from Seoul enrolls in a high school in rural South Korea. Born out of wedlock, he doesn’t have a good relationship with his mother who tells him that his father is dead. But he suspects his father is alive and he teaches in the school. He comes to know that his father has a son (Park Yong-ha) who studies in the school. Jealous of the fatherly love, he pursues the girl (Choi Ji-woo) that the son loves. One day, the two boys have a confrontation and he admits to his ulterior motives, which she overhears. He feels guilty for hurting her feelings and on a camping trip, it is he that finds her when she gets lost in the woods. He apologizes and tells her his feelings now are real, and she forgives him. One day, his mother shows up to take him to America. He goes to the car with his mother but jumps out of it on the way to the airport to at least say goodbye to the waiting girl. He is hit by a truck and reported dead. Ten years later, the now-engaged woman sees somebody that is a spitting image of her young love of yesteryear. She follows him but loses him. The next day, a former high school classmate (Park Sol-mi) walks in and introduces her boyfriend – the man she was following the day before! But the man has a different name and personality from the boy that she remembers and doesn’t know her. Their lives will get entangled and the past will haunt the present.
Stairway to Heaven (2003)
Stairway to Heaven stars Kwon Sang-woo and Choi Ji-woo in the lead roles. It also stars Shin Hyun-joon and Kim Tae-hee. The broadcast rights were sold to a Japanese company in 2004 for 1.2 billion won — a record price at the time for a Korean drama export.
The love between the girl (later played by Choi Ji-woo) and her childhood sweetheart (later played by Kwon Sang-woo) is a match made in heaven. But when her mother dies and her father remarries, things start to get rocky. Her stepmother moves into the house together with her daughter (Kim Tae-hee) and son (Shin Hyun-joon). Her stepsister is nasty towards her and her stepmother wants the sweetheart for her daughter as he comes from a rich family. When her childhood sweetheart invites her to study in America with him, her stepmother thwarts her plan. Three years later, when he comes back to Korea and she rushes to the airport to greet him, her stepsister hits her with a car. She loses her memory and her stepbrother, who has fallen in love with her, takes her away and changes their identities. Five years later, her stepsister and childhood sweetheart are engaged. But he still longs for her. He goes to the carousel that they used to ride as children and sees her, but she doesn’t recognize him. Eventually, they become close together and she regains her memory. But something will separate them again. This time, it is neither her stepmother nor her stepsiblings.
Jewel in the Palace (2003)
Jewel in the Palace, also known as Dae Jang Geum, is one of the highest-rated Korean TV dramas of all time. It stars Lee Young-ae in the lead role. It also stars Ji Jin-hee. Set in the Joseon era, the series follows the life of a kitchen cook who became the king’s first female physician.
A girl (later played by Lee Young-ae) loses her parents to poisonous politics in the royal palace. Later on, she works in the palace kitchen to uncover the letter her mother has written. She and her late mother’s friend are framed as traitors and are sent outside the palace to work as government slaves. A government official (Ji Jin-hee) offers to help her escape, but she turns it down because she wants to return to the palace one day. She meets a female doctor and sees becoming a physician as a sure ticket back to the palace. She begs the doctor to teach her medicine. Sure enough, she becomes a doctor-in-training at the palace. There, she has to deal with palace politics again. Despite her excellent medical skills, she finds strong oppositions at every turn every time she rises in government rank. Eventually, she becomes the king’s first female physician. When the king suffers a terrible ailment and is dying, she offers using “newly-discovered” anesthesia and surgery. But there is an uproar as the king’s body is considered sacred. The king lets her escape. Eight years later, she works again in the palace but lives outside of it.
Lovers in Paris (2004)
Lovers in Paris stars Kim Jung-eun, Park Shin-yang, and Lee Dong-gun. It was a phenomenal hit when it aired in South Korea in 2004.
Carrying on her late father’s wish, an optimistic South Korean woman (Kim Jung-eun) studies film in Paris. Without enough money, she takes up different part-time jobs. Because she has a tendency to be clumsy and is terrible at French, she often gets fired. One day, she is hired as a housekeeper for a rich man (Park Shin-yang), a fellow South Korean who is based in Paris. She likes the job because she gets to enjoy what the house has to offer, including watching the movies from his DVD collections. When the two finally meet, he gets annoyed at her and fires her when he becomes unhappy of her services. However, when he realizes that she comes from the same Korean town as the wife of a potential business partner, he offers her to act as his fiancée during his meetings with the couple. She accepts the offer on the condition that he give him back her job. When he takes her out, she is smitten by the splendor of the occasion. On his part, he also starts to get captivated by some of her good qualities. But their second meeting with the couple turns into a mess and they part ways on bad terms. In twist of fate, she meets the rich man’s nephew (Lee Dong-gun) — a meeting that will affect their lives later on. The rich man comes back to Korea upon the order of his father and she to attend her father’s death anniversary. They meet in Seoul by chance and have things patched up. Eventually, their feelings for each other grow deeper. But his father wants him to marry a woman from a rich family; his nephew becomes his rival in love; she finds herself in financial trouble; and a family secret will be revealed.
Full House (2004)
Full House is a romantic-comedy series starring Song Hye-kyo and Rain in the lead roles. It also stars Han Eun-jung and Kim Sung-soo. It is based on the comics of the same name by Won Soo-yeon. The series was a big break for Rain, who was already a fine singer and dancer at the time, and helped him become one of Korea’s biggest stars.
An aspiring scriptwriter (Song Hye-kyo) lives in a big and beautiful house that she has inherited from her deceased father. One day, her two trusted friends — a couple that is expecting a baby and beset by financial woes — trick her into believing she has won a free trip to Shanghai, China. As soon as she has left, they start to sell her house to solve their problems. On the plane, she is seated next to a famous actor (Rain). When she lands in China, problems start to unroll but at the outset she doesn’t realize how serious it is. She runs into the actor’s friend-manager (Kim Sung-soo) in the hotel lobby. To pay for the hotel and buy a return ticket, she convinces the actor that she is his friend’s ex-girlfriend. When she comes back to Korea, she finds out that her house has been sold and the new owner is none other than the actor she sat next to! She refuses to leave the house and he insists he is now the new owner. When she gets sick from sleeping outside, he takes pity on her, and lets her in. They reach an agreement: she can stay in the house if she does the housekeeping. With no other options, she agrees to it; she also wants to get the house back one day. The actor has been secretly in love with his childhood friend (Han Eun-jung) who is a fashion designer and plans to propose to her. But her affection is on his manager. Extremely heartbroken and to make the fashion designer jealous, he enters into a six-month contract marriage with his housemate; he promises to give his housemate the house when the contract expires. Amidst constant bickering, the sham couple slowly grows fond of each other. But they try to brush off their feelings with all their might.
My Lovely Sam Soon (2005)
My Lovely Sam Soon is a romantic-comedy series starring Kim Sun-a and Hyun Bin in the lead roles. It also stars Jung Ryeo-won and Daniel Henney. Described as the Korean version of “Bridget Jones’s Diary”, it is one of the highest-rated Korean dramas of all time.
A baker (Kim Sun-a) is nearing her 30th birthday. She is insecure of her weight and embarrassed of her first name (“Sam-soon”), which means 30 in Korean. Her boyfriend dumps her and she loses her job. Watching the breakup unfold is a restaurant owner (Hyun Bin). His restaurant needs a pastry chef so she applies for the job. She is rejected at first but offered the job later. She accepts it on the condition that the restaurant staff call her “Hee-jin”, the name she wants to change her real name to. The restaurant owner is surprised by the request but agrees to it. She quickly earns the respect of the kitchen staff by her baking skills. His mother, who runs their family’s hotel business, wants him to get married and take over. So, she keeps setting him up on dates. When the new chef finds herself in financial trouble, he sees a way to stop his mother from getting involved in his romantic relationships. He promises to give the chef the money if she pretends to be his girlfriend. But, they agree never to fall in love with each other. And then, his ex-girlfriend whose name is “Hee-jin” (Jung Ryeo-won) comes back to Korea from America together with her Korean-American doctor (Daniel Henney). A tragic past is revealed and together with it are unhealed wounds. The restaurant owner suggests they get back together with her ex-girlfriend. This turns the chef’s world upside down and she resigns from her job. He misses her and tries to interfere in her dates. Eventually, he realizes his heart now belongs to her. When the ex-girlfriend asks him to go with her to America for a week to finally have a closure on their relationship, the chef agrees. But one week turns to many and she doesn’t hear from him. So, she decides to finally move on. And then, one day he comes back.
Princess Hours (2006)
Princess Hours stars Yoon Eun-hye, Ju Ji-hoon, Kim Jeong-hoon, and Song Ji-hyo. It is based on the comics “Goong” by Park So-hee. It is a coming-of-age story set in an alternate, 21st-century South Korea that has a constitutional monarchy form of government.
The Emperor of Korea is seriously ill, which forces the royal family to find a wife for the teenage crown prince (Ju Ji-hoon) so that he can ascend to the throne if worse comes to worst. Meanwhile, a girl (Yoon Eun-hye) from a humble family goes to the same school with the crown prince. One day, she overhears him propose to his ballerina girlfriend (Song Ji-hyo) and get rejected. When they notice her, she runs away, but he remembers the sweatpants she is wearing underneath her skirt. When she meets the crown prince again, he warns her to keep her mouth shut. Before the crown prince’s grandfather died, he had entered into an agreement with a commoner to wed their grandchildren. Carrying on the agreement, the royal family marries the crown prince with a girl from a commoner family – who happens to be the girl in sweatpants. At first, she is against the marriage but agrees to it for the sake of her debt-ridden family. She finds it difficult to adjust to palace life and, on top of that, her husband doesn’t care about her. He promises to give her divorce in three years time – the time he thinks he will be capable of making decisions for himself. Amidst constant bickering, the two start to grow fond of each other but they brush it off. But when the crown prince’s cousin (Kim Jeong-hoon) comes back to Korea from England and his mother comes along later on, the past begins to haunt them all. His cousin’s deceased father was the crown prince of Korea when their then-emperor grandfather had the agreement with the commoner, which makes the cousin the now-crown princess’ fiancé at that time! A complicated relationship will arise between the crown prince, the crown princess, his cousin, and the ballerina.
Jumong is the top work of actor Song Il-gook. It made him a household face in several countries. He has done other incredible soap operas before and after Jumong, but his character’s name – after which the TV series was named — just sticks with him wherever he goes. The series also stars Jun Kwang-ryul, Han Hye-jin, and Song Ji-hyo. It is about the founder of the Kingdom of Goguryeo.
China’s Han dynasty is in power and the Korean Peninsula is divided. A baby is conceived between the leader of a resistance army and a woman from one of Korea’s old tribes. The father is ambushed and falls off a cliff. The mother of the unborn baby becomes a concubine of one of the leaders of divided Korea. Twenty years later, the boy (Song Il-gook) is often bullied by his brothers from the king (Jun Kwang-ryul) that he calls father. He escapes the assassination attempt by his brothers. He becomes skilled in combat after having been trained by a man that he meets in the wild. Later on, he finds out that the man is his real father. He returns to his adoptive father and, in a series of events, walks a thin line between protecting himself from his brothers’ clever ways and obeying their father’s military wishes. He goes missing in action and the woman (Han Hye-jin) that he loves marries another man. On his part, he marries the woman (Song Ji-hyo) who nurses him back to health. After a twist of fate, he forms an alliance with the tribe of the woman that he first loved, who is now a widow with two children, and marries her. They become the king and queen of the new nation of Goguryeo. And then, his first wife comes back with their child.
Coffee Prince (2007)
Coffee Prince is a romantic-comedy series starring Yoon Eun-hye and Gong Yoo in the lead roles. It also stars Lee Sun-kyun and Chae Jung-an.
The happy-go-lucky grandson (Gong Yoo) of a coffee business tycoon is the source of frustration for her. Unbeknownst to anyone, the grandson is not over his first love (Chae Jung-an) yet. But she is now in a relationship with his cousin (Lee Sun-kyun). A hardworking girl (Yoon Eun-hye), who is boyish and often mistaken for a boy, has been her family’s breadwinner since her father died when she was young. She takes up different jobs to make ends meet. When they first meet, she is delivering food to his apartment and he has just finished taking a shower. He notices that the delivery “boy” seems uncomfortable seeing his naked legs. When they meet again, he mistakes her for a thief. Eventually, a friendship begins to grow between them and to scare off the women that his grandmother sets him up with on a date, he hires her to pretend to be his gay lover. It works: each date storms out when she sees him kissing a “man”. They grow more fond of each other, mainly because he admires her for being hardworking. Meanwhile, his cousin also begins to like her; but, unlike him, the cousin knows her real gender. Frustrated over the failed dates, the grandmother buys an old coffee shop and tells the grandson to fix it up and make it successful. His new friend encourages him to go for it and he offers her to work for him. Not knowing her real gender, he only hires good-looking male employees to attract female customers. She likes having a full-time job, so she doesn’t tell anyone that she’s a girl. Soon, the coffee shop’s newly hired staff and their boss become close to one another. Only two of them know that one of their colleagues is a girl but they don’t want her getting fired. A complicated relationship will arise and the coffee shop owner will begin to question his sexuality.
With excellent cinematography, well-written story-lines, and talented and good-looking actors and actresses, the fan base of South Korean television series and films continues to grow. On top of that, the country’s music industry — with its high-budget music videos and highly-trained singers, dancers, and choreographers — proves a driving force in giving the country soft power at the global stage. The entertainment products that the East Asian country exports also seem to get better and better as years pass by. Will the country’s entertainment industry be able to sustain the momentum? Whether they hold the key to the future or not, the future looks bright and shining for them.