Hallyu Report III – Korean drama

Korean dramas play a no less important role in popularizing Korean culture, particularly in the initial stage of Hallyu. The following section will cover the several notable examples of internationally successful Korean dramas, classified into three major categories: soap opera, historical drama, and idol drama.

Soap Opera – Winter Sonata
While most countries across East Asia experienced the impact of Hallyu (brought about by Korean soap operas) quite early from the 1990s, Japan, despite close geographical proximity to Korea, is a latecomer. It was not until  2003, when the monumental Korean drama “Winter Sonata” was first shown in Japan, that the first wave of Hallyu in this country was created.

“Winter Sonata” is an exemplar of Korean soap operas. Its story revolves around two high-school sweethearts, whose pure and unconditional love underwent a rough life journey full of ill-fated obstacles, which include separation, amnesia, and family opposition.

In 2003 -  the first year this drama was introduced to Japanese audience, NHK, Japan’s national public broadcasting organization, hurriedly aired “Winter Sonata” twice due to explosive popularity.

then re-aired a third time in mid-2004. Due to viewers’ demand, the drama had been re-broadcast at least thirteen times across different channels in Japan, and had been watched by two-thirds of Japanese households.

“Winter Sonata” initiated an unparalleled craze in Japan, with Japanese female fans adopting all things Korean, from winter fashion style to food recipes and desired holiday location. In 2004, the amount of audience for NHK’s Korean language programs quickly doubled. Moreover, the drama created a large Japanese fan base for Korean actor Bae Young Joon, who is nicknamed “Yon-sama” in this country.  “Sama” is a royal Japanese honorific that indicates extreme respect.

 Historical drama – Dae Jang Geum
Compared with dramas presented in a modern setting, historical dramas take up a much smaller proportion of Korean dramas and often tell a more complicated storyline. That, however, did not diminish the power of historical dramas when it comes to stretching the scope of Korean Wave.

Released iIn late 2003, Korean historical drama “Dae Jang Geum” is tale of a poor orphaned female cook who rose above social discriminations to become the king’s first female doctor. The drama reaped striking international success, contributing to a sharp rise of Hallyu and sparking an interest in Korean cuisine. It has since become the epitome of successful Korean historical dramas. “Dae Jang Geum” is brought rights for screening in a myriad of countries, such as Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Canada, Israel, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Ghana, Venezuela, etc. Sweeping across continents, “Dae Jang Geum” spread Korean Wave to an unprecedentedly large audience and garnered strong viewers’ satisfaction in various regions. In Hong Kong, the drama was so well-liked that the final episode in May 2005 got over 40% viewer rating, then establishing itself as most watched show ever recorded in Hong Kong television history.

The drama’s success in China is reflected even through the words of President Hu Jintao, who admitted to being a fan, and expressed regrets for not being able to watch every episode due to working schedules. In Thailand, Korean restaurants boomed due to the drama’s influence. Similarly, in Australia, one can even find a Korean restaurant named “Dae Jang Geum”. In West Asia, the drama also left a strong impression, most notably in Iran, where “Dae Jang Geum” recorded a 90% rating. What’s more, widespread recognition of “Dae Jang Geum” reached many African countries. In Zimbabwe, for example, the drama was well-received enough for the audience to protest to the TV station and request the airing of Dae Jang Geum instead of the Olympic Games when the two timetables clash.

Idol drama – the latest trend
In recent years, along with the rise of Kpop, idol dramas have contributed to the quest for building international recognition of Hallyu. Idol dramas tend to feature young idol singers or actors and actresses, who may or may not have decent acting experience, but are popular in Korean entertainment industry. The storyline usually involves romantic relationships for teenaged couples, including love triangles.

In 2009, Korean  drama “Boys Over Flowers”, besides being broadcasted in numerous countries in and outside Asia, was a big hit online. It was noted that each episode of “Boys Over Flowers” typically got subtitled in 20 languages three days after it is aired. All cast members of the drama instantly became well-known outside South Korea. Actor Kim Hyun Joong, in particular, attracted enormous attention overseas, and his following drama in 2010 – “Playful Kiss”, despite receiving a mediocre ratings at home in Korea, enjoyed considerable international success. In its debut month, the drama’s broadcasting rights were promptly brought by 12 countries, totaling 3.45 million U.S. dollars of sales.

The overseas success of “Playful Kiss” led CNN to interview the producer and lead actor on Hallyu impact. In 2009, “You’re Beautiful” emerged as another drama that was enthusiastically received overseas. Jang Geun Suk, whose already-solid popularity was escalated thanks to the drama, started his own international promotion tour in 2010. Fan meetings were held in several Asian countries including China, Taiwan, Singapore, etc, even though the actor had not done any official activities in any countries apart from South Korea and Japan.

Binh Nguyen,
a Vietnamese intern

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