Author : JUNG Hojai | ย K-pop columnist


When it becomes Southeast Asia's prime TV time slot from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Korean dramas are usually broadcast on the main channels. Passing through the streets of cities such as Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, etc., one often encounters such scenes through the windows of modest houses or shops where TV set-top boxes usually display these typical K-dramas. Even after looking for a while, it's frustrating not to be able to figure out the titles and say, "Hmm, what drama could it be?"

The reason is that in most cases, they are daytime dramas that MBC and KBS aired between 2000 and 2015 (probably because they are older and can be imported in cheap prices), so they are not as famous, but they also look similar. For example, a middle-aged male talent appears as the main position in the center of the table, and familiar actors make numerous appearances around him, depicting scenes of family conversations around the dining table. You can probably vaguely imagine the usual K-drama iconic scenes. There is an old-fashioned faucet in the courtyard, and a large family lives harmoniously in a Hanok-style house with the forms of giyeok and digeutja, depicting everyday life in an everyday drama. Among the hundreds of K-dramas that aired a long time ago, it was difficult for me to grasp the title just from the brief images that passed by.

As in this case, it is true that K-dramas are not particularly mentioned in Korea have been regularly consumed outside Korea. K-dramas look so similar that they cannot be easily identified. It is believed that Hallyu dramas, which are influential in Asia, typically deal with such ordinary everyday themes. They are usually set against the backdrop of middle-class family weddings, with various tragic and dramatic events taking place. The stories revolve around families and friends coming together, overcoming crises and returning to a harmonious and peaceful everyday life, reminiscent of traditional fairy tales, appealing to viewers who enjoy such styles. And so Chulsoo A. and Younghee B. lived happily ever after for a long, long time.

Democracy and the middle class

I did not want to mention K-drama issues for two reasons: first, because I have not watched K-dramas as enthusiastically as other K-drama consumers, and second, because there are too many K-drama experts. In my opinion, there are about 10 million drama enthusiasts in this country alone. Talking about it right away could lead to unnecessary debates in the field. Besides, K-dramas are an extension of K-plays, K-novels, and K-movies. Considering that there are actually more than 10 million consumers in the film and literary genres, attempting to create an original Hallyu drama is quite a daring endeavor.

Recently, during a casual drinking session with three friends, we briefly discussed, "Why does Korea make good TV dramas?" One man, who works in the government, chicly replied, "Because South Korea is one of the advanced democratic nations." The answers that came out of the conversations automatically led to the ability of a country to create its own content and distribute it worldwide, with only a few exceptions such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Turkey, and some countries in Europe.

The discussion about democracy in the talk of the day is directly related and extended to the "aspiration of the middle class". Many Hallyu experts have already analyzed, "The background of the spread of Hallyu is directly related to the aspiration of the middle class, which is spreading all over the world. In fact, the middle class in 21st century Korea is the thickest and most robust in the world. The national class balance is excellent, and crucially, Korea is a country where the middle class holds the reins of government. This is a unique case in Asia and not very common in the world. When Japan's cultural goods attracted worldwide fans, especially under the economic boom in the 1980s and 1990s, based on Japan's hey days, in which was decscribed as the country with "120 million middle class".

The relationship between democracy and the middle class is quite direct and intuitive. Democracy can only take root when the middle class is solid. Culture and ethics produced on such a solid and stable institutional foundation naturally have a comparative advantage over other countries. Hallyu is evidence that Korea's middle-class culture has reached a global standard economically and socially.

Commoners and Petty-Bourgeoisie

When Chinese television viewers characterize Korean dramas, they use the expression "commonization" ("ํ‰๋ฏผํ™”" in Korean). In other words, it means that Korean dramas are attractive because they do not focus primarily on heroic stories. Whether it is martial arts novels, independence movement dramas or historical dramas, the dominant theme in China is often that of heroes or heroines. They love to exaggerate stories. If you think about the fact that the drama "Men of the Bathhouse (1995)" was the first to influence China in the 1990s, you can get a sense of this.

In Korean, the translation of the Chinese term "ํ‰๋ฏผ" seems to be aptly rendered as "์†Œ์‹œ๋ฏผ" (commoners or the middle class). Therefore, the backgrounds and characters of Korean dramas often depict the lives of this middle class. Even when aristocrats or marginalized classes appear, there is a clear attempt to focus on the middle class and integrate the strata of society. This becomes a distinctive feature that distinguishes Korean dramas from those of other countries. The naturally discussed ethics and worldview become the basis for moral and universal discussions. In addition, since the lives of the middle class are diverse, the narrative is rich with material.

If we take a brief look back, the early 2000s saw a period in Korean drama when stories of chaebol families, young executives, and flower boys dominated. However, since 2010, Korean dramas have consistently made efforts to overcome such biases and stereotypes by focusing on everyday life and social integration. TVN dramas in particular stand out, with hit series such as the "Reply" series, "Signal," "My Mister," "Another Oh Hae-young," "Incomplete Life," and "Psycho But It's Okay" serving as notable examples.

"Can we become better people?"

Recently, I found myself inevitably watching the Korean drama ย as if it were an assignment, and I was deeply moved. The depth and resonance were on a level that was hard to imagine before watching it. While I expected it to be a good story, I never expected it to be so profound (almost comparable to the works of Chekhov or the epic scale of Pearl S. Buck). When I asked myself if I could live my life like Manager Park Dong-hoon, it became even more perplexing. However, the most moving part wasn't the drama itself, but the comments and reviews from viewers. A short review I found on YouTube changed my perspective.

"This drama made me feel like a better person" - Amir Khan

"This drama made me feel like I could be a slightly better person." This sentiment echoes a very precious experience or awakening one can feel during the sensitive and emotionally charged period of late teens or mid-20s when encountering great novels or audiovisual works. But even for those of us who have experienced the harsh realities of adulthood and the sordid aspects of life in our late 40s, we can still have such a precious experience through Hallyu dramas. This is the power of drama, which is essentially the pinnacle of art.

When I thought about how this was possible, I realized that while there are certainly villains and absurdities in the world, there are characters like Chairman Shin-goo in real Korean society, and Park Dong-hoon's three brothers (albeit in a dignified way) do exist. Likewise, the setting of Hugaedong probably exists somewhere in Korea. Reality is somehow present around us, and the intensity of that reality may be stronger than in other countries. The writers, producers, and actors captured this reality, clothed it with expressions and voices, produced it into a drama, and then delivered the drama to global audiences through platforms like Netflix.

Furthermore, what members of society ultimately desire is the expectation of a better life and the pursuit of a higher humanity. After the drama ends, we gain the conviction that this is possible. It's not just a reflection of everyday life, but a realization of the nobility of humanity. In essence, drama plays the role of a school and a religion at the same time.

Dream of Integration

This article wasn't originally intended to argue that Hallyu dramas discuss "class integration. But as I was writing, my thoughts changed. I began to believe that Hallyu could potentially become a vanguard of the global "middle class" ideology. In the past, "bourgeois ideology" was often ridiculed as "petty-bourgeois consciousness," the target of contempt by intellectuals and revolutionaries. But with the passage of time and the intensification of polarization, the construction of a robust middle class and class integration have become a new challenge for humanity.

Southeast Asian societies are approaching the apex of a polarized economy. Look at Thai society, which is caught in the middle-income trap. Ultimately, a society without a middle class cannot progress. Of course, there is plenty of showmanship. Scenes of billionaires enjoying $1 tea and $3 chicken rice at street vendors (Singapore has hawker centers) frequented by ordinary people are not uncommon. But even with such displays, the reality remains unchanged. Class stratification in Southeast Asian societies is extremely resistant to integration and mixing. It's a society portrayed in the movie "Crazy Rich Asians," a dream world where absolute admiration for the rich prevails. Wealth is seen as inherently virtuous and beautiful. This trend is also gradually gaining ground in Europe and the United States. Of course, South Korea is also experiencing a growing trend of polarization.

Nevertheless, Korean society still clings to its dreams. Class integration is essentially the dream of overcoming social classes. It is a deep desire for the path of humanity. I believe that Korean dramas effectively capture these aspirations and ideals. When I watched , I felt this scene. This drama is essentially about the struggles and dreams of middle-class citizens who do not give up the dream of class integration. It reflects the strong spirit of Koreans who still aspire to such a society in the midst of a mature economy and democracy. This is why first-rate works are being produced, and why Asians and people all over the world resonate with and admire this dream.

In the drama, Lee Ji-Eun rises from the bottom of South Korea's poverty line to the middle class, where she finds comfort.
Park Dong-hoon is an ordinary family man who wants to live "like a man" and helps Lee Ji-eun grow up.


  1. Suppressing the desire for success is not the point. Dreams of becoming a global tycoon and pursuing innovation are valuable. However, when people realize their limited abilities and time as finite beings, society progresses. There are far more people with dreams of becoming part of the middle class, and they are the majority.
  2. Ultimately, it is expected that if the middle class in Korea collapses and polarization continues to intensify, the trend of Hallyu and the future of democracy will disappear together.
  3. The characters of IU's Lee Ji-an and Lee Sun-kyun's Park Dong-hoon are considered legendary. Watching the drama today, this writer also shed two tears.

JUNG Hojai now in SNU Asia Center as a visiting scholar