Top 10 South Korean Historical TV Series

  • The South Korean television series Jumong aired on MBC from 2006 to 2007. It is about the life of the founder of the Kingdom of Goguryeo. Its success across Asia brought lead actor Song Il-gook to several countries.

There is no doubt that South Korea is the top entertainment powerhouse in Asia nowadays. From music to films to television series, there is no stopping the East Asian country from conquering parts of the world. We have put together a list of the ten best historical TV series from South Korea which we are sure even people not into Korean entertainment will love watching.

10. The King in Love (2017)

The King in Love (2017)

© MBC

The King in Love stars Im Si-wan (mononym Siwan) from the boyband ZE:A, Im Yoon-ah (mononym Yoona) from the girl group Girls’ Generation, and Hong Jong-hyun in the lead roles. It is based on the novel “The King Loves” by Kim Yi-ryung.

Synopsis:

The crown prince (Siwan) and his childhood friend and bodyguard (Hong Jong-hyun) falls in love with the same girl (Yoona). His friend hides his feelings out of loyalty to the prince. But eventually, it is the girl that realizes whom she loves. The prince is the country’s first royalty of mixed heritage. His father is the King of Goryeo and his mother is the daughter of the Yuan dynasty’s emperor. It doesn’t sit well with the influential people around him that the country’s future king is the grandson of the domineering empire’s leader that controls their homeland.

9. Warrior Baek Dong-soo (2011)

Warrior Baek Dong-soo (2011)

© SBS

Warrior Baek Dong-soo stars Ji Chang-wook in the title role. The cast also includes Yoo Seung-ho who portrays a very mysterious character. The series is based on the comic “Honorable Baek Dong-soo” by Lee Jae-heon, which tells the life of a historical figure in Korea’s Joseon era.

Synopsis:

Because of actions taken by people in power in the Joseon dynasty and the Qing dynasty, Baek Dong-soo’s father and his family, including the still-unborn Baek Dong-soo are to be killed. The baby survives with the help of his father’s friend albeit losing his parents to bitter destiny. He grows up as a skilled swordsman and martial artist. His group defends the king against a group of assassins that plot to kill him. It is a story of friendship, loyalty and honor that involves those in power and those that do the dirty work.

8. The Emperor: Owner of the Mask (2017)

The Emperor: Owner of the Mask (2017)

© MBC

The Emperor: Owner of the Mask stars Yoo Seung-ho in the lead role. It also stars Kim So-hyun and Kim Myung-soo (mononym L) from the boy group Infinite.

Synopsis:

The crown prince (Yoo Seung-ho) fights against a powerful and wealthy group that wields enormous influence in the kingdom. The group has gained its formidable status by controlling and privatizing across the land what is among the people’s basic needs: water. A girl (Kim So-hyun) seeks to avenge the execution of her father at the hands of the prince but finds herself falling in love with him instead. Court politics is politics and it can get nasty. The prince secretly switches positions with a commoner (L). At the heart of the matter is compassion for the common people.

7. Love in the Moonlight (2016)

Love in the Moonlight (2016)

© KBS

Love in the Moonlight catapulted actor Park Bo-gum, who plays the lead role in the 2016 series, into the limelight and made him win several awards. The soap opera also stars Kim Yoo-jung and singer-producer Jinyoung from the boy group B1A4. It is based on the novel “Moonlight Drawn by Clouds” written by Yoon Yi-soo.

Synopsis:

A girl (Kim Yoo-jung) disguises herself as a man and a relationship counselor for men. A letter she has written for a client sends her into a hole with the crown prince (Park Bo-gum) although they do not know each other’s real identities. Later on, the girl is sold into the royal palace as a eunuch. There, she meets the prince again and finds out who he really is. She barely manages to keep her secrets from being revealed and experiences first-hand just how palace politics can get nasty. At first, the prince makes life difficult for the new eunuch but slowly grows fond of him. Amidst all the hardships and the scandalous rumor, a man (Jinyoung) from a powerful family comforts her whenever she is feeling down. A movement to take over the throne boils up and her new friend is at the heart of it.

6. Moon Embracing the Sun (2012)

Moon Embracing the Sun (2012)

© MBC

Moon Embracing the Sun skyrocketed the popularity of actor Kim Soo-hyun, who plays the lead role in the 2012 soap opera, and made him win numerous awards. It also stars Han Ga-in. It is based on the novel of the same name by Jung Eun-gwol.

Synopsis:

A 13-year-old girl accompanies her mother to the royal palace because her brother has passed the civil service examinations and there is a ceremony. There, she wanders around and comes across the young crown prince. Albeit some misunderstanding about each other’s real identities, they fall in love later on. But before she becomes the crown princess, the Dowager Queen secretly orders her death. The Dowager Queen wants a relative of hers for the prince because she wants more power. Upon her order, the head shaman curses upon the girl an unknown illness. The sorcery succeeds, the girl is banished from the palace, and dies. Eight years on, the crown prince is now a married king (Kim Soo-hyun) but the girl still lives on in his heart. He meets a shaman (Han Ga-in) who bears a striking resemblance to his young love of yesteryear. And he begins to investigate her death.

5. Empress Ki (2013)

Empress Ki (2013)

© MBC

Empress Ki was phenomenal for actress Ha Ji-won, who stars in the lead role, and won her accolades in 2013. It also stars Joo Jin-mo and Ji Chang-wook. It narrates the life of a girl from Korea’s Goryeo era who became an empress of China’s powerful Yuan dynasty.

Synopsis:

A girl (later played by Ha Ji-won) loses her mother at a young age. She grows up disguising as a man and finds her long-lost father later on. But her parents’ lives involves tragedies carried out by powerful people and this entangles her in a conflict with those people. They find out that she is a woman and sends her to the court of the Yuan dynasty to work as a servant. The Yuan dynasty controls her homeland of Goryeo. In the court, she befriends the other servants who are also from Goryeo. In a series of heart-pumping events, she finds herself torn between two important lovers: the king of Goryeo (Joo Jin-mo) and the emperor of Yuan (Ji Chang-wook). But the Yuan court is not without politics and malice. She has to deal with scandalous rumors that can bring her — and the people close to her — to doom. She is neither of Mongol nor Han Chinese descent and that itself is a huge problem. The girl from a small kingdom rises in status and wields enormous influence in a court from which decisions for vast stretches of lands from East Asia to East Europe are made.

4. Jewel in the Palace (2003)

Jewel in the Palace (2003)

© MBC

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.

Synopsis:

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.

3. The Great King, Sejong (2008)

The Great King, Sejong (2008)

© KBS

The Great King, Sejong stars Kim Sang-kyung in the lead role. It also stars Kim Yeong-cheol. The TV series tells the life of one of Korea’s greatest kings and the father of the modern Korean alphabet.

Synopsis:

As the third prince, Chungnyeong (later played by Kim Sang-kyung) is far from ascending the throne. The country is facing turbulent times and political tensions abound. He is abducted as a boy. Then, he finds himself living in a house outside the palace until he is a young man. There, he experiences first-hand the life of commoners. But when the crown prince is stripped of his title and the second prince is also removed from succession, the third prince becomes the king’s (Kim Yeong-cheol) successor, and eventually, the king. Now-called King Sejong, he stabilizes Joseon and strives to make it a better place. He supports scientific and technological inventions. He expands the country’s military capacity. He pushes for a printing machine that will produce high-quality books. He invents Hangul, the alphabet of modern-day Korea, despite facing strong oppositions from the country’s elite scholars that prefer the Chinese writing system. Hangul represents the sounds of spoken Korean. It is easier to learn and it makes education easy, even for the ordinary Korean.

2. Jang Yeong-sil (2016)

Jang Yeong-sil (2016)

© KBS

Jang Yeong-sil stars Song Il-gook in the lead role. It also stars Kim Sang-kyung. The series is about a popular scientist and inventor in the Joseon dynasty.

Synopsis:

A man (Song Il-gook) loves science and technology, but he was born to a lower-class family. It is 15th-century Korea, so opportunities for him are next to impossible. Yet, when he catches the attention of the king (Kim Sang-kyung), things start to roll — but not in the right direction, according to the conservatives. With the king’s support, he comes up with amazing inventions that include astronomical instruments, iron printing press, a water clock, and a sundial. But these things do not appear out of nowhere overnight and, in his case, not without emotional ups and downs. Powerful people question his social background and people around him discriminate him. He has no other connections apart from the interest of the king who is busy in putting back all pieces and corners of his country together from years of political turbulence. There’s more: his country has to tiptoe around officials from China’s powerful dynasty.

1. Jumong (2006)

Jumong (2006)

© MBC

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.

Synopsis:

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.

We hope you will enjoy watching the television series in this list. Because of their high-production values, we are sure Korean soap operas are bound to stay in the international scene for a long time. People all over the world know what is top quality when they see one.