Ride the ‘Korean Wave’: The best shows to stream on Netflix

The Glory, Alchemy of Souls, Single’s Inferno and other hit shows to watch, as the streaming giant plans to drop $2.5bn on even more K-content.

People look at 2022 Netflix Korea series and film posters
People look at 2022 Netflix Korea series and film posters during the 27th Busan International Film Festival in South Korea [File: Ahn Young-joon/AP]

On his first official visit to the United States this week, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s first meeting was not with his counterpart Joe Biden.

Instead, he met with Netflix’s co-CEO Ted Sarandos.

After the meeting, the US streaming giant announced it would invest $2.5bn in Korean content over the next four years, which is double the amount that Netflix has so far spent in South Korea.

Sarandos said South Korean stories are “now at the heart of the global cultural zeitgeist” as more than 60 percent of Netflix’s 233 million subscribers around the world are watching South Korean films, dramas and reality shows, according to company data.

Netflix is not the only streaming platform that’s looking to capitalise on the “Korean wave”. Disney+, Apple TV and Asia-based ViuTV are also increasing investments in South Korea and hosting more K-content.

One big number that stands out is for the colossally successful Netflix original series Squid Game. It was the streaming platform’s most-watched non-English language series of all time with a total of 1.65 billion hours watched. In comparison, Netflix’s most-watched English language series, Stranger Things (season four), was watched a total of 1.35 billion hours.

Along with Squid Game, the top 10 in the non-English category features three other Korean series: All of Us Are Dead, The Glory (season one) and Extraordinary Attorney Woo.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol meets with Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos during a news conference in Washington, U.S., April 25, 2023.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol met with Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos in Washington, DC on April 25, 2023 [File: Yonhap via Reuters]

Watch now

Here are some of Netflix’s recent K-content hits we recommend:

1. The Glory (seasons one and two)

The Glory is a 16-episode Korean drama starring veteran actress Song Hye-kyo. It tells the story of a woman who suffered years of horrific abuse in high school and spent most of her adult life putting an elaborate revenge scheme into motion to make the perpetrators pay for their crimes. It was released in two parts and was the most-watched show on Netflix for two straight weeks in March, performing near the top of the charts in more than 90 countries.

It helped spur a crackdown on bullying in South Korea, where the show had a profound influence, with the government announcing new strict steps to combat aggression of this kind in schools. Students with records of bullying will have that reflected in their college application process starting in 2026.

“We can no longer tolerate rampant school violence,” Prime Minister Han Duck-soo told reporters at a briefing on the matter earlier this month. In a separate statement, he cited the Glory and said the high interest in the show “reflects the public’s stern voice”. Some of the most violent acts of bullying that occur in the drama are also based on true events.

School bullying is a contentious issue in South Korea and it is becoming increasingly common for celebrities accused of bullying to be faced with serious consequences. Just last year, K-pop company HYBE (which includes groups such as BTS and ENHYPEN) dropped then-16-year-old Kim Ga-ram, a former member of the successful girl group Le Sserafim, after she was accused of verbally abusing her classmates.

2. Physical 100

It’s not just K-dramas that are captivating audiences. Physical 100 is a nine-episode reality survival show that brings together 100 of South Korea’s best athletes from various disciplines – both men and women – to compete in a series of gruelling challenges for the title of the most impressive body. Among the contestants are Olympians, fitness influencers, and even a firefighter and a prison guard.

Physical 100 was the first reality series to top Netflix’s chart for non-English language TV shows. The streaming platform has not yet announced plans for a second season.

3. Extraordinary Attorney Woo

This courtroom drama with an unusual protagonist, a young female lawyer with autism working at a top law firm in Seoul, is one of the most popular non-English series ever on Netflix.

The 16-episode drama starring Park Eun-bin has triggered a debate, however, with some saying it is far removed from the reality of those living with autism in South Korea. Some viewers with family members on the autism spectrum said the character’s portrayal was unrealistic and over-dramatised.

However, others have said it has raised awareness and drawn attention to those on the autism spectrum, who say they often feel invisible. In South Korea, knowledge and awareness of autism is still rather limited, and those with high-functioning autism often remain undiagnosed.

4. Alchemy of Souls

This 30-episode fantasy epic from superstar writing duo the Hong Sisters, who have written hit dramas such as A Korean Odyssey, Hotel del Luna, Master’s Sun and many others, was released in two parts. It is hard to summarise the intricate plot of Alchemy of Souls, which revolves around a group of mages in the fictional land of Daeho – based on historical Korea – who protect the universe from a dark magic known as the alchemy of souls.

Those who have mastered this dark magic can swap souls with another body, often by force and for reasons such as greed, power or eternal life. And it comes at a devastating price: a “soul-shifter” who has “run wild”, must feed on others’ souls to survive.

The main characters are a notoriously skilled assassin Nak-su (portrayed by veteran actress Jung So-min in season one and rookie actress Go Youn-jung in season two), who accidentally shifts her soul into the body of a blind woman, and Jang Uk (portrayed by Lee Jae-wook), an aspiring mage whose father suppressed his ability to cast spells. Their fates intertwine as Jang Uk recognises Nak-su in her new body and strikes a bargain with her to train him to unlock his magical potential.

The fantasy romance became a Netflix sensation and kept viewers engaged enough to return for the second season. It was one of the most-watched fantasy series on the platform and was streamed by millions across the globe.

5. Single’s Inferno

This hit reality dating show is centred around single men and women trying to find love on a deserted island. Contestants may escape the island only when two of them become a couple. The series mixes survival shows with the idea of participants fighting for their love interests and has become the first Korean reality show to make it onto Netflix’s top 10 TV shows. It currently has two seasons, and a third season has been confirmed.

Jo Yoong-jae and Choi Seo-eun, participants in Single's Inferno 2 speak during a fan meeting event in Seoul, South Korea, February 11, 2023.
Jo Yoong-jae and Choi Seo-eun, participants in Single’s Inferno 2, speak during a fan meeting event in Seoul, in February 2023 [File: Soo-hyeon Kim/Reuters]

6. Little Women

Based loosely on Louisa May Alcott’s novel of the same name, this drama is dominated by strong, well-written female characters. The 12-episode series follows three sisters who have grown up in poverty. Their lives are turned upside down when they are forced to fight against the wealthiest family in South Korea after a huge amount of money goes missing.

7. Queenmaker

This female-led drama tells the story of a powerful fixer who uses her skills to boost a civil rights lawyer’s mayoral campaign. It was released on Netflix on April 14 and has a total of 11 episodes.

8. All of Us Are Dead

After a failed science experiment, a local high school is overrun with zombies. The trapped students are on their own as they struggle to survive during a government-ordered communications cut-off and dwindling supplies. One of Netflix’s most-watched Korean series, it has been renewed for a second season.

Global ambitions

This year, Netflix unveiled plans for its biggest slate of Korean content as it faces growing competition from other streaming platforms and criticism for its plans to restrict password-sharing. Its new K-content includes dozens of series, films, reality shows and documentaries.

Netflix also added 1.4 million paid subscribers from the Asia-Pacific region in the third quarter of 2022, and its most recent earnings indicate it is the company’s fastest-growing region.

But the ambitions are global, both for Netflix and South Korea. In 2021, the country’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism reported that South Korea’s cultural exports hit an all-time high of $12.4bn.

The total revenue of the Korean content industry – which includes films, series, cartoons, music, games and advertising – that year stood at $107bn.

In fact, South Korea’s cultural exports have surpassed the export value of other products, such as home appliances and electric vehicles, ministry data showed, making the content industry South Korea’s top export driver.

This year, the government said it plans to double the exports of K-content to $25bn by 2027 by expanding its export markets to the Middle East, North America and Europe and injecting more investments into the industry.

It remains to be seen when South Korea’s cultural boom will reach its peak – or whether it already has – but for now, Sarandos has said Netflix’s $2.5bn investment underlines his confidence in South Korea’s soft power as fans worldwide continue to enthusiastically consume K-content.

Upcoming titles

Curious to see what Netflix has in store this year? We have rounded up a list of the most-anticipated South Korean titles to watch out for in 2023:

1. Gyeongseong Creature

Featuring a star-studded cast including Park Seo-joon, Han So-hee and Wi Ha-joon, this drama is set in 1945 during Japanese rule over Korea when Seoul was still called Gyeongseong. According to the drama’s official description, two young adults will “confront a strange creature born of greed and battle against it for survival”.

South Korean actor Park Seo-joon attends the Chanel Fall/Winter 2023-2024 ready-to-wear collection presented Tuesday, March 7, 2023 in Paris.
Korean actor Park Seo-joon attends a Chanel event in Paris in March 2023 [File: Scott Garfitt/Invision/AP]

2. Black Knight

This series is set in a dystopian future devastated by air pollution. The story revolves around a group of deliverymen known as the Black Knights who navigate the wastelands using unconventional means as humanity’s survival is under threat.

3. Song of the Bandits

Although the plot details of this drama are limited at the moment, we know it is set in the 1920s during a turbulent period of Japanese occupation. It tells the story of a group of people from Joseon, the last dynastic kingdom of Korea, who have gathered in Gando, which today is part of northeastern China, and banded together to protect their homes during Japanese colonial rule.

4. Sweet Home (season two)

Netflix’s hit apocalyptic horror drama from 2020 is set to return for a second season this year. Traditionally, Korean dramas rarely run for more than one season, but Netflix has shaken up things in the industry considerably. Sweet Home has garnered a huge fanbase since its release, and a major cliffhanger at the end of the first season could mean record-breaking viewership for season two.

The series was adapted from a popular digital comic called a webtoon of the same name and tells the story of a troubled high school student, Cha Hyun-soo (portrayed by Song Kang). Cha and the rest of the residents of the apartment complex Green Home find themselves fighting off monsters that want to wipe out humanity.

5. 19/20 (Nineteen to Twenty)

This coming-of-age reality show will follow various members of Generation Z as they enjoy their final week of being 19 and their first week of being 20.

Source: Al Jazeera