After stepping into the K-drama game a few years ago, Netflix has grown to become the world’s top purveyor of Korean drama content.
With its mix of original series produced in-house, licensed shows from tvN and JTBC and its library of classic titles, the streaming giant has a dizzying array of options sure to keep any viewer hooked for days on end.
Here is our pick of 15 of the best K-dramas you can stream on Netflix right now.
Signal, one of the original breakout cable dramas, remains among the best shows to ever grace Korean screens.
Loosely based on the American film Frequency, the show follows Park Hae-young (Lee Je-hoon), a young profiler in the present who finds a walkie talkie that allows him to communicate with Lee Jae-han (Cho Jin-woong), a grizzled detective in the 1980s.
He teams up with detective Cha Soo-hyun (Kim Hye-soo) to solve cold cases before they get a chance to happen.
Signal kicked off a new era of sophisticated K-dramas thanks to its gripping and dark storyline.
2. Squid Game
The newest entry on this list, Squid Game has quickly turned into a global sensation, reaching a viewership that goes far beyond the usual K-drama audience.
In the show, 456 debt-ridden souls find themselves in a gigantic survival game as they face off in playground game-inspired challenges, each with deadly twists.
The sets are lavish, the costumes colourful and the body count exceptionally high in this feverishly entertaining Korean entry to the death game genre.
Silenced director Hwang Dong-hyuk provides grand staging and breathless twists, while Lee Jung-jae leads a cast featuring a scintillating debut from Jung Ho-yeon.
3. My Mister
K-pop superstar IU (aka Lee Ji-eun) was already an established actress, but she became a respected thespian in the acclaimed drama My Mister, sharing the screen and standing shoulder to shoulder with top actors like Lee Sun-kyun.
She plays Ji-an, a temp worker in an architecture firm struggling with personal problems and crippling debt. Lee Sun-kyun plays a senior company man with his own troubles, including a wife who is having an affair with the CEO.
Ji-an catches wind of the affair and hopes the information will be her ticket out of debt.
Back in 2017, K-dramas were still looked down upon by many Western viewers, but that began to change with the success of acclaimed crime drama Stranger, one of the first K-dramas to seduce an international audience on Netflix.
Cho Seung-woo and Bae Doona team up as a brilliant prosecutor who lacks empathy and a gutsy detective in the hit procedural series, which has so far spawned two seasons.
In the first season, they unravel a murder mystery together, which puts them in the sights of corrupt prosecutors and conglomerate executives.
Every man in South Korea has to serve in the military, but until now, few mainstream tales have explored this difficult and often traumatic part of their youth.
Netflix scored a critical darling with D.P.
The drama debut of Coin Locker Girl director Han Jun-hee, the series features superlative performances from Jung Hae-in and Koo Kyo-hwan as recruits whose job it is to chase down deserters.
Filled with comedy, drama and tension, the series builds to a climax both devastating and cathartic.
6. Secret Garden
This classic Korean romcom stars Hyun Bin as an aloof department store CEO who crosses paths with Ha Ji-won’s spunky stuntwoman.
The pair initially lock horns, but opposites attract as their relationship swerves between high comedy and tender affection.
Secret Garden doesn’t stop there – the budding lovebirds face a new challenge when the story takes on a magical body-swapping turn.
7. Misaeng: Incomplete Life
The ultimate office drama, Misaeng: Incomplete Life is based on the webtoon of the same name and features Im Si-wan as a washed up player of baduk (a strategy board game) who enters a trading company as an intern.
The show follows him as he tries to navigate the complicated corporate culture with baduk mantras as his guide.
In a country with a strict office culture and where corporate jobs are highly sought after, Misaeng struck a chord with viewers and featured an ace line-up of co-stars, including Lee Sung-min, Kang Ha-neul and Kang So-ra.
8. Reply 1988
Reply 1994 or 1997 could easily have filled this slot, but the most enduring entry in this run of slice-of-life anthology series is surely Reply 1988 .
The last, most successful entry in the series, it focuses on the turbulent lives of five teenagers in northern Seoul, South Korea, on the eve of the Seoul Olympics of 1988.
The show turned actors Ryu Jun-yeol, Lee Hye-ri, Park Bo-gum, Lee Dong-hwi and Go Kyung-pyo into household names.
A small show that turned out to be a big surprise, Navillera gave young actor Song Kang his most convincing showcase to date as a dashing ballet dancer – but it’s his senior co-star, veteran actor Park In-hwan, who steals the show as a retiree who wants to realise his dream of performing ballet on the stage before it’s too late.
A simple story builds to a cathartic climax with just the right dose of heartfelt melodrama in this unassuming delight.
Netflix raised the bar for K-dramas last year with Extracurricular, a slick and dark high school crime drama focusing on the theme of underage prostitution.
Kim Dong-hee plays the top student in his class, who also runs an illegal escort service. His classmate, played by Park Ju-hyun, catches wind of his scheme and muscles in.
Things things go smoothly until one of their escorts is caught. Extracurricular explores the secret desires of teenagers and has style to burn.
11. Guardian: The Lonely and Great God
Perhaps the ultimate Korean fantasy romance, Guardian: The Lonely and Great God , also known as Goblin, stars Gong Yoo as a general who dies branded as a traitor and is later revived and cursed to immortality as a “goblin” who helps people, but must forever outlive his loved ones.
In the present – nearly 1,000 years later – he is summoned by Kim Go-eun’s bubbly high school student and, over time, they discover that their meeting was no random encounter.
12. Mr. Sunshine
One of the most sumptuous dramas ever brought to the screen, Mr. Sunshine was seen as the big-budget small-screen comeback of star Lee Byung-hun, nine years after espionage K-drama Iris.
Lee plays a military officer born into slavery who returns to the Korean Joseon kingdom (1392-1910) and falls for an aristocrat’s granddaughter.
He shares the screen with actress Kim Tae-ri, who had a breakout role in The Handmaiden, in this epic and lush tale of Korean independence fighters set in the early 1900s before the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula.
Handsomely produced, chill-inducing period drama-horror Kingdom piggybacked on the global success of the zombie smash Train to Busan by transplanting the undead to the Joseon era.
The show comes from the mind of Signal writer Kim Eun-hee and stars Netflix favourite Bae Doona and Ju Ji-hoon as a nurse and crown prince respectively who team up to fight zombie hordes.
The franchise has already spawned two seasons, with a third likely on the way, and a pair of feature-length specials.
14. Crash Landing on You
The romantic comedy that took the world by storm in 2020, Crash Landing on You reunites Son Ye-jin and Hyun Bin, after thriller Negotiation, as an heiress who accidentally paraglides into North Korea and the officer who finds her behind enemy lines.
Among other things, the show was praised for its depiction of life in North Korea. The popular screen romance famously developed into an off-screen one, with Son and Hyun revealing their real-life relationship earlier this year.
15. Itaewon Class
Starting with the familiar premise of a young man seeking revenge following the death of his father, Itaewon Class shows its varied colours when that man, played by Park Seo-joon – who would go on to star in The Marvels – opens in a bar in Seoul’s multicultural Itaewon district after a stint in jail.
The show broke ground for its diverse roster of characters, which included a transgender woman and a Guinean-Korean in its main cast.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.