UPDATED: December 2016
I have been asked a lot as to what are some of the best Historical Korean Dramas (HKD). There are really so many! I decided to make a list of my TOP 10 Korean Historical Dramas of ALL TIME. As I was putting it together, I couldn’t even narrow it down to 10 without feeling I was leaving out some really good HKD’s behind. I made an “Honorable Mention” section, so I guess you can say it’s a Top
15 16 list. Because it was hard enough to condense my favorite, let alone rank them, I just listed them alphabetical order by its English title.
Before I continue, I think it’s important to point out how I watch dramas. In most cases, I wait until a series is completely over before I start watching. I’m all about binge-watching. I hate nothing more than having to wait an entire week before I’m able to watch the next episode. If I’m really impatient to watch something, I’ll wait until it at least 75% completed. Therefore this list is only of completed dramas I’ve watched.
Methodology Used To Establish My Best Sageuk List
I broke it down to the following: High Addiction Quotient. This term has been used to describe video games, but I think this might be the first it’s been used to describe dramas. Dramas with a high addiction quotient are those I couldn’t get enough of – the ones I would be either constantly thinking about, up all night watching, or spending entire weekends binge watching.
*******Just because a drama isn’t listed here does not mean that the rest are bad. There are SO MANY great dramas!!! To see my full drama list and how I rated various dramas, feel free to check out my full Drama List at MyDramaList.com and then hit “SCORE” to view them by rating. ********
I will update this list as new dramas come up that meet the High Addiction Quotient. Please note: These are listed in ALPHABETICAL ORDER.
1. Arang and the Magistrate (2012)
- Native Title:아랑사또전 Arang sattojeon
- Episodes, Network: 20, MBC
- Time Period: mid 1500’s
- Overivew: This is a Joseon Dynasty ghost-human romanic drama. While this is a fictional story, it is based on a very old Korean folktale called “The Legend of Arang, the Virgin Ghost” which is one of the most recognizable haunted spirit tales in Korea. The tale of Arang is set during the reign of King Myeongjong (1545-1567) in the Miryang region, Gyeongsangnam-do Province 경상남도 밀양시. There are then several oral versions of the tale but the foundation of the tale is that Arang was the beautiful 19 year old daughter of the local Magistrate. She was lured out by her nanny and brutally killed by an admirer. After her death, she becomes a ghost and appears to every district magistrate. She ultimately comes back in human form and with the help of a noble man, she is finally able to rest in peace. Here’s a closer look at the legendary story of Arang, The Virgin Ghost.
2. Ballad of Seo Dong (2005)
- Native Title: 서동요 Suhdong Yo
- Episodes, Network: 55, SBS
- Time Period: approximately 590’s to early 600’s
- Overview: This is based on a famous Korean legend found in the Samguk Yusa about the young King Mu of Baekju, whose personal name was Sodong. He falls in love with Princess Seonhwa of Silla. He intentionally spreads a sensational rumor about the princess and himself among the people through a song. As a result, King Jinpyeong of Silla banishes her. Read more about her in my article Badass Mamas of the Three Kingdoms Period.
3. Bridal Mask (2012)
- Native Title:각시탈 Gaksital
- Episodes, Network: 28, KBS2
- Time Period: 1930
- Overview: This drama centers on Lee Kang To who is a smart and ambitious Korean police officer employed by the Japanese colonists. Kang To is on the hunt to catch the person behind The Bridal Mask. The Bridal Mask appears as a Zorro-like figure who protects the Korean people from the Japanese colonists’ oppression and abuse of power. While this is a completely fictional story, it is a very interesting look at the real social dynamics which existed during one of the darkest periods in Korean history.
- Native Title: 기황후 Ki Hwanghu
- Episodes, Network: 51, MBC
- Time Period: 1300’s
- Overview: There was a real empress in China known as Empress Qi who was from Goryeo. She was married to Toghon Temür, the Khan of the Yuan Dynasty (Mongols). This drama sparked a huge controversy because there was no such king as Wang Yoo of Goryeo. He was a completely fictional character because the real king of Goryeo at that time, King Chunghye 충혜왕 was a psychopath and is considered to be one of the worst kings in Korean history. With that being said, Empress Ki, the drama, was SOOOO good! I LOVED IT!!
5. Faith (2012)
- Native Title: 신의 Shin Eui
- Episodes, Network: 24, SBS
- Time Period: mid 1300’s
- Overview: This is a fictional time travel love story between the real life historical Goryeo warrior, Choi Young and a fictional female doctor from 2012. I personally thought the time travel thing would be way over the top and take away from the story, but it didn’t. Minus the time travel to 2012, the story takes place in 1351, when the 31st King of Goryeo, King Gongmin 공민왕 begins his reign.
6. Jang Ok Jung, Live In Love (2013)
- Native Title: 장옥정, 사랑에 살다 Jang Ok Jung, Sarange Salda
- Episodes, Network: 24, SBS
- Time Period: late 1600’s
- Overview: This drama is based on the book written by Choi Jungmi. It is a complete reinterpretation of one of Korea’s best known royal concubines of the Joseon Dynasty, Lady Jang Hee Bin, known for her ruthless scheming and lust for power. Her personal name was Jang Ok Jung (1659 -1701) and she was the Royal Noble Concort (concubine of the 1st rank) of King Sukjong (r. 1674 – 1720). The drama has Jang Ok Jung as the daughter of a slave who becomes one of Joseon’s top fashion designers. This drama left me sobbing like a baby! Even though it’s been awhile since I’ve seen it, I’m still moved just thinking about it. At a later date I will write a more in depth article about the historical elements of this drama.
7. JeJoongwon (2010)
- Native Title:제중원
- Episodes, Network: 36, SBS
- Time Period: 1884 – approx 1915
- Overview: For whatever reason, this didn’t become a popular as some of the other sageuks. What makes this historical drama unique from the others we’ve all seen is because in the course of this drama, you can see the transformation of Korea and the influences of the West; where the clothing goes from Hanboks to Yangboks (Western Suits). This drama moved me so much that I wrote a 2 part article. JeJoongwon Part 1, JeJoongwon Part 2
- Native Title:주몽
- Episodes, Network: 82, MBC
- Time Period: 108 BC – 19 BC
- Overview: This story is about Jumong and how he became the founder of Goguryeo in 37 BC. Goguryeo was one of the ancient Three Kingdoms of Korea which lasted for over 700 years. For those interested in Korean history, this drama comes first in chronological order of Korean history. This drama was a global sensation and a ratings blockbuster all over the world and universally on any “must watch” list. Read more on my Jumong page.
9. The King’s Daughter, Su Baek Hyang (2014)
- Native Title:제왕의 딸, 수백향 Jewangui Dal, Su Baek Hyang
- Episodes, Network: 108, MBC (35 minutes)
- Time Period: late 400’s to early 500’s
- Overview: This drama is unusual in the sense that it is only 35 minutes long rather than the standard hour. It was also originally slated as a 100 episodes, but due to the huge popularity, the writers added an additional 8 episodes. This drama had it all – romance, action, suspense, comedy – there’s something for everyone. The title character, Su Baek-hyang, was born as the love child between the daughter of a traitor and the man who would be crowned as King Muryeong, the 25th king of Baekje. She is unable to receive her title of princess due to her greedy and ambitious younger sister. For a closer look, visit my Su Baek Hyang page.
10. Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo (2016)
- Native Title: Hangul: 달의 연인 – 보보경심 려 dal-ae yeon-in – bobo kyung shim ryeo
- Episodes, Network: 20, SBS
- Time Period: 941
- Overview: Although there were a lot of new sageuks during 2015 and 2016, this was the best drama I have seen in the past couple of years! This drama is about a modern Korean woman who is transported back to the early part of Goryeo dynasty during the reign of King Taejo, the founder of Goryeo. She finds herself thrown in the middle of power struggle between King Taejo’s many sons. While other time travel dramas take place mostly in the modern era, about 90% of this drama takes place during Goryeo. One of the central characters of the drama is Wang So, the 4th Prince and future King Gwangjong of Goryeo. You can read more about King Gwangjong on this site.
11. Queen Seon Duk (2009)
- Native Title: 선덕여왕 (善德女王) Seondeok Yeowang
- Episodes, Network: 62, MBC
- Time Period: early 600’s
- Overview: Highly fictionalized interpretation of the real life Deokman, who eventually becomes Queen Seon Duk, the first female queen of the Silla Dynasty, one of the three ancient kingdoms of Korea. She reigned from 632 – 647. While the story itself is a fictionalized interpretation, many of the people and leading characters were real. This is the drama that started it all for me! Read more about her in my Badass Mammas of The Three Kingdoms Period Page.
Because there are so many great Korean Historical Dramas out there, I feel these dramas also deserve to be at least on an honorable mention list. Again, these too are in alphabetical order.
12. Ja Myung Go (2009)
- Native Title:왕녀 자명고 Wahnyu Ja-myung-go
- Episodes, Network: 39 SBS
- Time Period: approx 30 AD
- Overview: This drama is loosely based on a 2000 year old Korean folk tale about the dashing and charming Prince Hodong of Gorguryeo and the Princess of Nakrang Kingdom. This story was documented in the 1000 year old text, Samguk Sagi. This tale is about nations, war, love, betrayal, and death. More about the legend can be found on the Legend of Prince Hodong and Princess Nangnang page.
13. The Fugitive of Joseon
(aka: Heaven’s Order / aka: Mandate of Heaven)
- Native Title: 천명 (天命)
- Episodes, Network: 20, KBS
- Time Period: 1540’s
- Overview: “The Fugitive of Joseon” (천명). It is also called “Mandate of Heaven,” which is more closer to the Korean title. Set during the end of of King JungJong’s (중종왕) reign (506–1544) through the beginning of King Injong’s (인종왕) reign. This drama tells the story of a royal physician desperate to cure his ailing daughter. He becomes a fugitive when he gets entangled in an assassination plot to poison the crown prince. He fights to save both his daughter’s life and his own. This drama kept me at the edge of my seat. The addiction factor was huge for this drama, I was able to bang this one within only a week!
- Native Title:황진이 (黃眞伊) Hwang jini
- Episodes, Network: 24, KBS2
- Time Period: early to mid 1500’s
- Overview: This story is about the life of Joseon-era dancer, musician and poet, Hwang Jin Yi. She sought perfection in her art, despite hardships facing women due to their lowly social status. For those wanting to learn more about this amazing woman, please visit my page on Hwang Jin Yi. If you love Korean traditional dresses, hanboks, this drama has one of the best displays of hanboks of any drama.
15. Moon Embracing the Sun (2012)
- Native Title: 해를 품은 달 Haereul Poomeun Dal
- Episodes, Network: 20, MBC
- Time Period: Joseon
- Overview: This is a completely fictional story about a secret love between Lee Hwon, the king of Joseon, and Wol, a female shaman. This drama became an international sensation and ratings blockbuster.
16. The Three Musketeers (2014)
- Native Title:삼총사 Sam Chong Sa
- Episodes, Network: 12, TvN
- Time Period: 1620’s
- Overview: With only 12 episodes, The Three Musketeers is on the short side when it comes to historical dramas. This is a fusion K-Historical drama that follows the Crown Prince Sohyeon (소현세자) his warriors Heo Seung-Po and An Min-Seo and a guy named Park Dal-Hyang who is preparing for his military examination. The main story takes place 4 years into the reign of King Injo (r. 1623–1649). This was originally intended to be 4 seasons long, but due to ratings, it only lasted one season. The show aired on TvN, which is a paid cable network, so I’m not sure if that also affected ratings. It’s too bad, because it was very entertaining. If you are looking for a good light-hearted sageuk, I would recommend this one.
17. The Princess’ Man (2011)
- Native Title:공주의 남자 Gongjooeui Namja
- Episodes, Network: 24, KBS2
- Time Period: mid 1400’s
- Overview: It’s a Joseon dynasty version of “Romeo and Juliet.” A tragic love story between the daughter of Prince Suyang and son of Kim Jong Seo. They fall in love instantly but later they find out that their parents are sworn enemies.
OK, I realize this is a super huge stretch, but I just LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this drama! Since there’s some flashbacks to Joseon, I figure it’s OK to include this. It’s definitely one of my absolute all-time favorite dramas, so my list wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t add this one. I think for hardcore sageuk watchers, like myself, this is one modern drama I recommend you watch. My Love From Another Star (2013)
(aka: You Came From the Stars / My Lover From The Stars / You From Another Star)
- Native Title:별에서 온 그대 Byeol-esuh Ohn Geudae
- Episodes, Network: 21, SBS
- Time Period: This is a present day drama with flashbacks to 1600’s Joseon
- Overview: This is story about an alien who first arrived on earth in 1609, but in order to protect a girl he met, he missed his chance to return to his home planet. 400 years later, he is still living in Korea and working as a professor, the latest of many identities he’s taken on through the years. The drama was a hit in Korea and became a worldwide sensation.
I will state again: Just because a drama isn’t listed here does not mean that the rest are bad. There are SO MANY great dramas!!! To see my full drama list and how I rated various dramas, feel free to check out my full Drama List at MyDramaList.com and then hit “SCORE” to view them by rating.
Let me know what you think. What would be on your BEST SAGEUK list? Please feel free to add your comments below.
CHECK OUT: PART 2
Related Article: Introduction to Sageuks