[Event] Issues and Research Topics in the Field of K-Dramas

  • The Global Era of K-Dramas Amplified by the Impact of Netflix
  • What have K-drama researchers ignored and shouldn't?
  • Suggestions for Basic Research to Structure K-Drama Discussions

Reporter | Sangmi Park & Vanessa
Date | October, 2023

Yong-jin Won, Professor Emeritus of Sogang University 

The discussions surrounding the immensely popular Korean commodity, "K-drama," lack a clear academic origin or disciplinary framework. Various academic fields have shown interest in Korean drama, each conducting research in its own unique way. Research on K-dramas often revisits themes previously explored in studies of K-pop, traditional cultural industry studies, and international communication studies. These research findings are interrelated, creating a loosely connected research community.

Nevertheless, the significant differences in perception and methodology have been identified as problematic. Even serious discussions about their differences and similarities have yet to be reached. As a result, the attributes of K-drama and its role within academia have become sources of confusion. There is an urgent need for a way out of the current situation that serves as an intermediate step to improve the quality of research discourse.

Structuring K-Drama Discussions

On Monday, September 25, 2023, an approximately 2-hour talk was devoted to a basic research proposal and related discussions on structuring K-drama discourse. The talk was given by Professor Yong-jin Won, an Emeritus Professor at Sogang University. The session was moderated Sojeong Park, a Research Fellow at the Center for Hallyu Studies of Seoul National University Asia Center, and the discussion was conducted by Professor Tae Jin Yoon of Yonsei University and Professor Ju Oak Kim of Texas A&M International University.

Professor Won is considered one of the first generation of scholars in South Korean media and cultural studies. Over the past three decades, he has been at the forefront of addressing key issues related to changes and developments in the media and their impact on South Korean society. In this lecture, he achieved five main objectives: first, he categorized the types of K-dramas; second, he presented different types of dramas based on directors and production companies; third, he discussed genre differences arising from film and broadcast traditions; fourth, he mentioned various changes attributed to the "Netflix effect"; and finally, he summarized the characteristics of K-dramas based on preliminary answers to research questions.

On this day, the lecture began by delving into the definitions of terms such as "K-drama," "K-pop," and "Hallyu," while also highlighting the prevalent problem of Western Orientalism in relation to these terms. It concluded with a recommendation to avoid being trapped within the confines of the long-standing melodrama-based themes on which K content has traditionally relied. Special emphasis was placed on advising writers and directors to reinterpret Korean traditions and to provide guidance on how to achieve sustainable development.

During this event, Professor Won focused his discussion on 14 research topics for K-drama. To identify these themes, he used research materials on trends in the recent drama industry, including works of Korean narrative produced by the Korean production system (directors, studios) until 2000. He also used data on the distribution of works in various systems such as OTT, TV channels, and the Internet, as well as pilot interviews with OTT original series directors and studio drama directors as part of his research methods.

Drama as a Form of Journalism

As a Cultural Studies scholar in Korea, he raised questions about the perspectives that constitute K-drama through more than 10 central discourse structures. He stated that "creating drama is also a journalistic approach," and encouraged the importance of theoretical exploration due to the challenges of forming a subject, and encouraged interest in new forms of social criticism or journalism.

The discussions of the day highlighted the issue of identity (conceptual definition). For example, it was noted that defining the concept of K-drama in a static way can lead to confusion, as there is a need to unearth or uncover aspects that may be overlooked. This concern was raised in light of the emergence of foreign works that address Korean themes or history, such as Pachinko and Minari. In addition, there were discussions about providing explanations for dramas that are not part of the global content distribution network, such as daily dramas or historical dramas, as well as K-dramas produced abroad, such as Thai remakes.The talk also touched on important research issues related to classifying changes in K-dramas over different time periods. These classifications were based on changes in distribution technology, global popularity, domestic industry landscape, and production quality, resulting in five distinct eras: 1) The Unintended Success (1997-2003) 2) The Experience of the Potential for Success (2004-2010) 3) The Era Shaped by Comprehensive Broadcasting Channels (2011-2015) 4) The Studio Era (2016-2020) 5) The Netflix Era (2021~) marked by the emergence of Squid Game.

In addition, the discussion delved into other important areas of research, such as granularity based on distribution channels and production systems, the blurred distinction between drama and film, genre categorizations within K-dramas, an assessment of whether there has been a substantial improvement in the quality of K-dramas, conversations about the super genre that transcends genre boundaries and takes on a genre of its own, and the evolving landscape of film and television production processes, studio-ification, gentrification, and the lively topic of transmedia storytelling. These areas are expected to be central themes in future K-drama research.

Professor Won, one of the first generation of Hallyu researchers who also enjoys K-dramas, concluded the lecture by emphasizing the importance and necessity of key research topics. In addition, the panelists emphasized the need to explore the connection between webtoons and K-dramas, the development of narratives, and the significance of webtoon-based spin-off dramas. They raised various issues related to uniqueness and universality, the public nature of video production in K-dramas, and the growth of drama industries in Thailand and China.