Many K-Dramas come out each year, but there are only a few that absolutely shine. This article will show you the 10 highest-rated dramas in the history of South Korean public broadcast.
It is important to note a few things first, however. Public broadcast shows and cable shows are rated differently than each other, and as such, they cannot be on the same list. Public broadcast channels are free-to-air channels such as SBS, KBS1, KBS2, MBC, and EBS. For these dramas, the ratings are calculated relative to the households with access to free-to-air television channels, while cable dramas are relative only to households with subscriptions to paid television channels. Also, there are significantly fewer dramas on public TV, so it’s much easier for them to get higher ratings as there is less to watch. The average is usually around 20-25%. That certainly doesn’t mean they aren’t amazing though!
(P.S. Netflix, Viki, and other online subscription services are not counted.)
Now that there’s some background, let’s get into the ten!
10. Jewel in the Palace (57.8%, MBC)
Based on a true story about a girl in the Joseon Dynasty, Jang Geum (Lee Young Ae), who became the first woman to be the supreme royal physician. Despite being a low-class girl in a male-dominated society, Jang Geum overcame social discrimination and began as a royal cook, later becoming the royal physician, then ultimately the physician in charge of the king.
This show is known for being one of the primary champions of the Hallyu Wave because it became widely popular abroad as well.
9. Eyes of Dawn (58.4%, MBC)
The story of three young Koreans caught in the turmoil of the nation. Spanning from the Japanese colonial period to the Korean War, the drama brought attention to issues like Japanese war crimes (especially “comfort women”) and the tragedies brought on by Korea’s ideological divisions.
This K-Drama was one of the first dramas to be shot entirely before broadcast and was the largest Korean television production of its time, as it had overseas shoots in China and the Philippines with over 270 actors and 21,000 extras.
8. Emperor Wang Geun (60.2%, KBS1)
This drama is about Emperor Wang Gun (Choi Soo Jong), the founder of the Goryeo Dynasty.
The episode depicting the end of Gung Ye recorded the highest viewership rating of its time.
7. Sons and Daughters (61.1%, MBC)
This show examines Korean society’s preference for boys over girls through the story of Lee Kwi Nam (Choi Soo Jong) and Lee Hoo Nam (Kim Hee Ae) who are twins of the opposite sex. Hoo Nam and Kwi Nam’s mother treats them unequally.
6. A Sunny Place of the Young (62.7%, KBS2)
This K-Drama depicts the late ‘80s, with the theme of ambition and betrayal between young people who wanted to succeed in the mining village of Sabuk.
5. Hur Jun (63.5%, MBC)
Based on a true story, Hur Jun (Jeon Kwang Ryul) was the illegitimate child of the governor of Pyongyang and spent his days as the leader of a smuggling ring. When caught, his father arranged for Hur Jun and his mother to leave for Gyeongsang. This is where he met Dr. Yoo (Hwang Soo Jung), who discovered his talent and interest in medicine. Soon his life makes a complete turn and he goes on to become the Emperor’s physician.
This show was aired after the finale of Jewel in the Palace (which was directed by the same director). The main characters were so similar that Hur Jun was often been called the male version of Jewel in the Palace.
4. Sandglass (64.5%, SBS)
This show is the story of two men whose friendship is put to the test through the 1970s and 1980s, one of Korea’s politically tumultuous periods. Park Tae Soo (Choi Min Soo) grows up to become a gangster and Kang Woo Suk (Park Sang Won) grows up to become a prosecutor. Yoon Hye Rin (Go Hyun Jung), a daughter of a very wealthy casino owner, is Woo Suk’s college classmate. Hye Rin is introduced to Tae Soo and they fall in love.
This drama was such a phenomenon that some shops and businesses closed early so that their workers could go home in time to watch it. A common excuse in Korea became “Sorry, Sandglass is on tonight.” It is considered one of the most significant dramas in history and was praised for its realistic portrayal of the Gwangju Uprising.
3. What Is Love? (64.9%, MBC)
This drama centers around two families with contrasting values. One is conservative and patriarchic, the other is modern and utilitarian. The drama comically portrays the troubles that arise as these two families become in-laws, while also delivering a message about the importance of balancing traditional and progressive values.
2. First Love (65.8%, KBS2)
This drama focuses on the lives of two brothers, Chan Hyuk (Choi Soo Jong) and Chan Woo (Bae Yong Joon), and their relationship with a wealthy girl named Hyo Kyung (Lee Seung Yeon) from childhood through adulthood. Chan Hyuk and Chan Woo move with their family from Seoul to the countryside where their widowed father finds work as a painter for the local movie theater. The two brothers eventually befriend the movie theater owner’s daughter, Hyo Kyung. Although both brothers develop feelings for her, Hyo Kyung falls for Chan Hyuk. Their relationship is severely tested by multiple hardships over the course of many years including the extreme opposition of her father and uncle.
1. You and I (66.9%, MBC)
Park Jae Chul (Choi Bool Am) is an old sailor and a father to three sons and one daughter, Dong Kyu (Park Sang Won), Young Kyu (Cha In Pyo), Sang Ok (Seo Yoo Jung), and Min Kyu (Song Seung Heon). Dong Kyu is a working man and carries the responsibility as the eldest. He is in love with Yoon Su Kyung (Choi Jin Shil) (his co-worker). They work together to overcome the difficulties of getting married. Young Kyu dreams of nothing but money and marrying a rich girl. While serving in the military, he tricked a naive country girl, Mi Sook (Kim Ji Young), who he promised to marry. Mi Sook becomes blinded by love and provides all his needs. Sang Ok is the only girl in the family. She is a college student. Min Kyu is quiet and introverted. He distances himself from his family because he’s troubled by the fact that he’s from another mother. Though he’s a talented painter, he doesn’t use his talent much. His brother Young Kyu and the rich girl Shi Yeon (Lee Bon) always stand by his side and push him to be better.