How K-dramas came to and dominated America

For some Americans, Korean dramas came out of nowhere. Between 2019 and 2021, viewership numbers for TV series produced in South Korea went up a staggering 200% in the U.S. When Squid Game hit Netflix in September 2021, one in four Americans watched it. It wasn’t just a K-drama hit; it became the streamer’s most-watched series of all time.

But Squid Game isn’t a total anomaly. The Korean series is one chapter in a larger story with its own name and history: a seismic, ongoing shift in the global entertainment landscape known as Hallyu. The term comes from a Chinese phrase meaning “Korean wave,” and it refers to the phenomenal international success of Korean cultural exports. Hallyu is a challenge to the decades-long domination of the global pop culture market by English-language, American-made media. K-dramas built the foundation of this disruption.

Prior to the development of the internet and the streaming technology that would eventually come with it, Korean TV was accessed almost exclusively by Korean Americans in major U.S. cities through a few broadcast stations, cable channels, and Koreatown video rental services. That began to change in the 2000s, when populations outside of Korean American communities started to find and seek out K-dramas.

This is the story of the slow, steady integration of Korean dramas into the U.S. “mainstream” — a journey tied to development of the internet and streaming video technology, and spearheaded by a woman-dominated fan culture.



The frontier era (2002-2009)

The leads of Jewel in the Palace wear period garb, set against a background motif used throughout this story. Graphic: Pete Volk/Polygon | Source images: MBC, Mel Haasch for Polygon

In the aughts, the Korean Wave was already crashing on international shores, though mainly in other Asian countries. There were virtually no efforts from major American media companies to bring K-dramas to that market. But a few smaller endeavors began to capitalize on the growing, underserved market and found success. In 2003, California-based YA Entertainment became America’s first official importer and distributor of Korean TV dramas outside of Korean diaspora media, bringing K-drama DVDs into major American retail chains. A five-year survey the company conducted in 2008 found only 5% of the K-drama fans surveyed described themselves as Korean, signifying that the popularity of this TV format in the U.S. had already spread beyond Korean American neighborhoods and populations.

Meanwhile, on the internet, K-drama growth was largely fan-driven. Before there were legitimate streaming sites for watching K-dramas, there were illegal streaming sites that catered to the growing audience interested in Korean and other Asian dramas. Websites like mysoju.com and DramaCrazy.net were popular sources of K-drama content — though they relied on unlicensed videos hosted on platforms like Veoh or YouTube, where they could be taken down for copyright violations at any time.

If K-drama fans weren’t streaming, they were torrenting. Popular blogging site LiveJournal became an online hub for English-speaking fans of Korean and other Asian dramas, looking to share torrents and discuss their favorite series. On this internet frontier, pockets of English-speaking Korean drama fandom began to grow and gather, supported by bilingual fans who took the time to subtitle their favorite TV series for viewers who didn’t speak Korean.

Here are some of the dramas that defined this era.

Winter Sonata / 겨울연가 (2002)

Where to watch: Viki

For many, the proper start of the Hallyu. The 2002 drama starring Bae Yong-joon and Choi Ji-woo as lovers torn apart by fate became a cultural phenomenon in Japan, as well as in other countries in Asia, spurring international interest in Korean dramas and laying the foundation for the export of more K-dramas around the world.

Jewel in the Palace / 대장금 (2003)

Where to watch: Viki

Based on a true story, Jewel in the Palace captured the hearts of global audiences, especially in East Asia, with its women-centric tale of the Joseon dynasty’s first female royal cook.

Full House / 풀하우스 (2004)

Where to watch: Viki

Not to be confused with the American sitcom. Starring K-pop idol Rain and future The Glory star Song Hye-kyo, Full House is considered a pioneer of the K-drama rom-com.

Coffee Prince / 커피프린스 1호점 (2007)

Where to watch: Viki

Starring future Train to Busan lead and forever K-drama heartthrob Gong Yoo, the show follows an unexpected (for them) romance between a young food empire mogul and a young woman who dresses as a man to get a job at a coffee shop. Gender-bending and genre-blending, Coffee Prince is modern-day Shakespeare.


The little streamer era (2009-2018)

The two leads on My Love from the Star lean on each other, in an image overlaid on the scrapbook motif used throughout this post. Graphic: Pete Volk/Polygon | Source images: HB Entertainment, Mel Haasch for Polygon

With the rise of streaming technology came the further growth of K-drama fandom in the U.S. But it wasn’t until 2009 that U.S. fans were offered a legal alternative to the roughly two dozen unlicensed streaming sites that existed for K-drama fans on the internet: DramaFever. Launched by Korean Americans Seung Bak and Suk Park, it became the first legitimate online streaming site for K-dramas in the U.S., tapping into a market that saw almost 6 million unique users watching Korean dramas on illegal video streaming websites in North America every month.

As Sangjoon Lee and Abé Markus Nornes wrote in Hallyu 2.0: The Korean Wave in the Age of Social Media: “[DramaFever’s] business model was the first attempt to incorporate dispersed online fan communities, Asian-American youths, ‘baby boomer’ consumers of YA Entertainment DVDs, yuhaksaeng [students studying abroad], and potential users scattered online.”

In June 2010, DramaFever launched its own channel on Hulu, eventually brokering deals with YouTube and Netflix as well. That same year, K-drama-centric streamer Viki launched, with an army of fan subtitlers who continue to serve as the backbone of the community today. In 2014, an estimated 18 million Americans — over 58% between the ages of 16 and 24, and more than 88% of them girls or women — were watching K-dramas. More than half of them were watching via DramaFever. In 2018, DramaFever unexpectedly and abruptly shut down after being bought by Warner Bros., rocking the K-drama fan community and marking the end of an era.

Boys Over Flowers / 꽃보다 남자 (2009)

Where to watch: Viki, Netflix, Tubi

Fully a product of its time, Boys Over Flowers is a bit of a cringe-watch today. But when it first aired, the Korean interpretation of the much-adapted Japanese manga series was all anyone in K-drama land could talk about, introducing a wave of new international viewers to K-drama and making Lee Min-ho into a household name.

Playful Kiss / 장난스런 키스 (2010)

Where to watch: Viki, Tubi

While Playful Kiss flopped domestically, it was so popular outside of Korea that it was granted a rare second season, distributed exclusively on YouTube.

Secret Garden / 시크릿 가든 (2010)

Where to watch: Viki

A stuntwoman and a department store CEO fall in love in this body-swapping romance starring future Crash Landing on You star and forever Hallyu hunk Hyun Bin. This is the first series on our list to be written by Kim Eun-sook, who also penned hits The Heirs, Descendants of the Sun, Goblin, Mr. Sunshine, and The Glory.

The Heirs / 왕관을 쓰려는 자, 그 무게를 견뎌라 – 상속자들 (2013)

Where to watch: Viki, Netflix, Tubi

The Heirs (also known as Inheritors) follows an ensemble of young, extremely rich students at an elite high school as they prepare to take over their family conglomerates (as you do). The Heirs was co-produced by DramaFever, marking the company’s expansion from solely a distributor to also a producer of K-dramas.

My Love from the Star / 별에서 온 그대 (2013-2014)

Where to watch: Viki

An ancient alien temporarily stranded on Earth falls in love with a Hallyu star in this fantastical romantic comedy written by future Crash Landing on You scribe Park Ji-eun. My Love from the Star was so popular in China, it led to a spike in sales of chicken and beer across the country and was a topic of discussion at China’s National People’s Congress. An American remake of the series got pretty far in development at ABC before getting shelved.

Signal / 시그널 (2016)

Where to watch: Paramount Plus, Tubi

Two police detectives use a walkie-talkie that connects them through time to track down a killer in this loose adaptation of the 2000 Hollywood flick Frequency. Arguably the most successful K-drama adaptation of American source material, Signal was written by Kingdom scribe Kim Eun-hee, and became one of Korea’s highest-rated TV dramas ever.

Descendants of the Sun / 태양의 후예 (2016)

Where to watch: Viki, Hulu

This series stars Song Joong-ki (in his comeback project after mandatory military service) as an elite special forces member and Song Hye-kyo as a cardiothoracic surgeon, who fall in love in the fictional war-torn Mediterranean country of Uruk. The series was released simultaneously in China, and was viewed over 1 billion times on Chinese streaming service iQiyi. A year later, China would begin an unofficial boycott of Korean cultural content following the deployment of a U.S. missile defense battery system on Korean soil, effectively cutting off one of the biggest export markets for Korean TV.

Goblin / 쓸쓸하고 찬란하神 – 도깨비 (2016-2017)

Where to watch: Viki

A warrior born centuries ago, Gong Yoo’s Kim Shin was transformed into a dokkaebi, a goblin-like figure from Korean myth, and cursed with immortality. He is left to walk the Earth until he meets the Goblin’s bride, who can pull the sword from his chest and bring an end to his immortality. Enter Ji Eun-tak (Little Women’s Kim Go-eun), an orphaned high school student who can see ghosts. Goblin (also known in English as Guardian: The Lonely and Great God) was a genuine Hallyu phenomenon, introducing another wave of international fans to K-dramas.

Sky Castle / Sky 캐슬 (2018-2019)

Where to watch: Viki, Netflix

The highest-rated Korean cable TV show in history at the time of its broadcast, Sky Castle brings us into the desperate, cutthroat world of wealthy Korean parents trying to ensure their children’s place at one of the country’s top universities.



The Netflix era (2018-2021)

Lee Byung-hun and Kim Tae-ri hold their hands in each other’s faces in Mr. Sunshine. Graphic: Pete Volk/Polygon | Source images: Netflix, Mel Haasch for Polygon

The seismic impact Netflix made on the international K-drama scene cannot be understated, as it brought a much broader global audience into the K-drama fold. The streamer launched in Korea in 2016, but the company wouldn’t release its first “Korean original” until 2018. Netflix’s interest in the region as a less expensive source of high-quality TV drama, film, and reality series has only grown since then, making it more difficult for domestic studios and streamers to compete. In 2023 (notably right before the WGA strike), Netflix announced it would be investing $2.5 billion in the production of Korean films, dramas, and unscripted (aka reality) shows over the next four years.

During this time period, Viki continued to be a go-to streamer and community platform for K-drama fans, especially in the absence of DramaFever, providing not only an extensive library of series, but also a thriving fan community.

Mr. Sunshine / 미스터 션샤인 (2018)

Where to watch: Netflix

Korean superstars Lee Byung-hun (Squid Game’s Front Man) and Kim Tae-ri (The Handmaiden) lead this gorgeously shot sageuk, or historical drama. Director Lee Eung-bok teams back up with writer Kim Eun-sook (Goblin, Descendants of the Sun) to tell a romantic if not always historically accurate tale about a country on the verge of Japanese annexation at the turn of the 20th century. Netflix reportedly invested three-quarters of the 40 billion won ($30.8 million) budget for this one, which ran for 24 episodes on Netflix and Korean network tvN.

Kingdom / 킹덤 (2019-2021)

Where to watch: Netflix

Zombies, not on a train but in a fictional version of the Joseon dynasty. Billed as Netflix’s first original Korean series to be released exclusively on Netflix, the series has spanned two seasons and one spinoff film thus far.

Hotel Del Luna / 호텔 델루나 (2019)

Where to watch: Viki, Netflix

One part historical epic and one part dark fantasy romance, Hotel del Luna stars K-pop darling and future Broker actress Lee Ji-eun (aka IU) and was written by Hallyu superstars the Hong sisters, who also penned K-drama classics like My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho and my beloved Alchemy of Souls.

Crash Landing on You / 사랑의 불시착 (2019-2020)

Where to watch: Netflix

For many modern K-drama fans, Crash Landing on You was their gateway. With the final episode of the romantic drama dropping on Netflix in mid-February 2020, all 16 episodes were available to watch once COVID-19 pandemic stay-at-home mandates took effect. Fans around the world fell for this story about a South Korean entrepreneur (Son Ye-jin) and a North Korean military captain (Hyun Bin) falling in love after the former is swept by a tornado into the DMZ while paragliding. The Hallyu magic around this show only grew when, following the show’s release, the two leads announced they are in love IRL, got married, and had a baby.

Itaewon Class / 이태원 클라쓰 (2020)

Where to watch: Netflix

Itaewon Class stars future MCU star Park Seo-joon as a Count of Monte Cristo-like character with a bad haircut who opens a restaurant and bar in Seoul’s trendy Itaewon neighborhood as part of an epic plan of revenge, and ends up creating a found family in the process. The series featured one of K-drama’s first positive examples of trans representation on screen.

It’s Okay to Not Be Okay / 사이코지만 괜찮아 (2020)

Where to watch: Netflix

With imaginative visuals and a focus on mental health, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay became one of the breakout dramas of an emotionally tough 2020.

Sweet Home / 스위트홈 (2020-)

Where to watch: Netflix

An adaptation of a Korean webtoon, supernatural horror drama Sweet Home became the first K-drama to break into the Netflix top 10 in the U.S. The story follows Cha Hyun-soo (Song Kang), a high school student with suicidal ideations, who finds himself caught in the middle of an apocalypse. A second season of the drama is slated for the end of 2023, with a third season also on the way.

Sweet Home is also notable for its webtoon source material. Webtoons are a type of mobile-friendly digital comic that originated in Korea in the late 1990s, and have grown to become globally popular; the platform WEBTOON, for example, pulls in 85 million monthly active users, and calls itself the world’s largest publisher of digital comics. Sweet Home is based on a story created for WEBTOON, and is one of many K-dramas that started its narrative life on a webtoon platform.

D.P. (2021-2023)

Where to watch: Netflix

This two-season Netflix K-drama starring Jung Hae-in follows a team of Korean military police whose job it is to catch military deserters. D.P. would prompt a discussion about issues of bullying and hazing in the Korean military, in which every able-bodied Korean man must serve.


The big streamer era (2021-)

A costumed superhero in Moving raises his fist up, in an image overlaid over the motif used throughout this piece Graphic: Pete Volk/Polygon | Source images: Disney, Mel Haasch for Polygon

When DramaFever abruptly closed in 2018 shortly after Warner Bros. bought the company, one industry source speaking anonymously to Digiday said, “This is a big boy’s game now.” And it is. While streamers like Rakuten’s Viki, which cater specifically to audiences interested in Korean and other East Asian media, are still a big part of the K-drama game, “mainstream” streamers like Apple, Disney, Amazon, Paramount, and Netflix have caught on to the potential of the Korean TV industry.

Dr. Brain / Dr. 브레인 (2021)

Where to watch: Apple TV Plus

Dr. Brain, a webtoon adaptation about a man who tries to solve the mystery of his family’s deaths by “syncing” with the brains of dead people, is not very good. However, it’s notable as the first K-drama produced for Apple TV, which launched in Korea with the Dr. Brain premiere.

Snowdrop / 설강화 (2021-2022)

Where to watch: Disney Plus

Set in 1987, during Korea’s student-led pro-democracy movement, Disney Plus’ first K-drama tells the story of a romance between a college freshman and a North Korean spy. K-drama star Jung Hae-in and Blackpink’s Jisoo couldn’t save this drama, which was plagued by claims of dangerous historical revisionism even prior to its release.

All of Us Are Dead / 지금 우리 학교는 (2022)

Where to watch: Netflix

In one of Netflix’s most-watched TV shows of 2022, teenagers at fictional Hyosan High School try to survive ground zero of a zombie outbreak. And it’s good!

Extraordinary Attorney Woo / 이상한 변호사 우영우 (2022)

Where to watch: Netflix

Extraordinary Attorney Woo, a legal drama about an autistic rookie lawyer, was no stranger to the position as the most-watched Netflix series in the world during its run, sparking a broader conversation about representations of autism on screen.

Semantic Error / 시맨틱 에러 (2022)

Where to watch: Viki

Queer characters and relationships are still rare in Korean entertainment, especially as a central element of a story, which makes Semantic Error — arguably Korea’s first BL, or boys’ love, success — such a big deal.

The Glory (2022-2023)

Where to watch: Netflix

Hallyu legend Song Hye-kyo stars as Moon Dong-eun, a woman who devotes her life to getting revenge on the rich kids who severely bullied her in high school. The Glory, which pulled from real-life stories of school violence in Korea, broke into Netflix’s top 10 in the U.S.

Moving / 무빙 (2023)

Where to watch: Hulu

Disney finally gets it right with Moving, a big-budget adaptation of Kang Full’s webtoon about superpowered teens and the superpowered parents who are trying to protect them from government exploitation. It’s been a massive success: The finale was shown in movie theaters in Korea, and the series became Disney Plus’ most-watched series — of any language or genre — in Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, demonstrating just how powerful the Korean TV industry has become on the global stage.