There are plenty of reasons to love Korean historical dramas: sageuks are the perfect mix of royal romances, palace conspiracies, and aesthetic AF robes and scenery. And whether you consider yourself a history geek or not, historical K-dramas are also a great way to gain a little insight into Korea’s fascinating past. Maybe you want to know all about the political conflict surrounding the founding of the Joseon Dynasty, or maybe you just love to watch decorated court ladies and Goryeo princes parade across your screen. Either way, we’ve put together a master list of the best historical K-dramas from each time period. Come take a trip through Korea’s rich history, and see which eras you may want to stop at along the way!
Three Kingdoms of Korea
First up, the Three Kingdoms period refers to the time from 57 BC to 668 AD, when the Korean Peninsula was divided among the ancient kingdoms of Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla. Each state developed its own unique cultural identity, while testing their borders and alliances with each other.
Goguryeo was the northernmost of these kingdoms, and ultimately the largest, also occupying parts of Manchuria in China. Its founder, King Jumong, is shrouded in myth: said to be the grandson of the river god Habaek, Jumong was known for his skills as an archer.
This 2006 drama is definitely an investment: with 81 total episodes (extended from 60 due to its popularity), “Jumong” is a historical epic with a multitude of awards to its name. The drama paints the life of its legendary titular king so powerfully that it even achieved an impressive following overseas, making it one of the first K-dramas to break into the global market.
Check out “Jumong”:
The state of Baekje was actually founded by one of Jumong’s sons. This kingdom, located on the southwest side of the Korean Peninsula, had an extensive coastline that made it a naval power, enabling it to engage in trade with China and Japan.
Set in the mid-7th century, this 2011 drama follows the story of famed General Gye Baek as he struggles to defend the kingdom of Baekje from the attacks of Silla. With tense, action-packed battle scenes and a talented cast, “Gye Baek” is a great way to learn about one of the less frequently portrayed periods of Korean history.
Watch “Gye Baek” here:
Silla occupied the southeast portion of the Peninsula, and cultivated unique societal and cultural traditions that make it the perfect background for K-dramas. Known for its rigid social structure and powerful aristocracy, Silla had a hereditary “bone rank system” that determined a person’s place in society based on his or her relatedness to the royal bloodline. Silla also gave rise to the Hwarang, a group of male warrior-scholars who studied art and religion as well as swordsmanship and martial arts.
True to its name (“Hwarang” means “Flower Knights”), this Silla period drama features an overwhelming number of flower boys in its cast. “Hwarang” paints a vivid image of life and culture in Silla, from the boys’ rigorous education to the show’s depiction of the immense inequality in a society structured by the bone rank system. Plus, the real life hwarang were known for being especially good-looking, and the best part of this sageuk is just watching the guys goof around and bond with each other!
Catch “Hwarang” below:
“The Great Queen Seon Deok”
The bone rank system originally prescribed that only those of the “sacred bone” rank, with royal blood on both sides, could become rulers. Thus, when there was a dearth of suitable male heirs, Queen Seon Deok ascended the throne. “The Great Queen Seon Deok” follows the life of this tenacious and indomitable woman as she fights for her rightful spot in the palace. With a sweeping plot, detailed character development, and a talented cast, it’s no wonder the drama garnered numerous awards when it came out in 2009.
Start watching “The Great Queen Seondeok”:
North-South States Period
With a little help from China, Silla eventually defeated both Baekje and Goguryeo in the late 7th century, unifying the Korean Peninsula for the first time under a kingdom that became known as “Later Silla” or “Unified Silla.” To the north, the kingdom of Balhae emerged in Manchuria as a successor state of Goguryeo. Thus the North-South States Period was born, with both Balhae and Unified Silla being heavily influenced by the Tang Dynasty in China.
“Dae Jo Young”
“Dae Jo Young” traces the life and trials of the founding king of Balhae, as well as other heroes of the time. This drama will teach you a surprising amount about the geography and political alliances of the period, while offering epic battle scenes, a seamless plot, and a cast of veteran actors that bring these legendary figures to life.
Stretching from 918-1392 AD, the Goryeo Dynasty had plenty of time to cultivate rich societal and cultural traditions, making it a popular setting for historical K-dramas. When Unified Silla failed to maintain control of the Korean Peninsula, it briefly fragmented into three kingdoms again before finally being unified under Goryeo. Confucianism became increasingly prominent, and the national civil service exam grew more influential, allowing some upward social mobility in a society that was traditionally controlled by a few aristocratic families. The exam tested expertise on everything from writing composition to knowledge of classic Chinese texts — students have been plagued by standardized tests for centuries!
“Scarlet Heart: Goryeo”
“Scarlet Heart” tells the story of a 21st-century woman who, after nearly drowning, wakes up in Goryeo — specifically, in the palace, where she befriends the numerous princes of the royal family, many of whom vie for her affections. Did we mention that they’re all gorgeous? They are also all based on real historical figures of the ruling family, and the show’s heroine eventually falls in love with the fourth prince Wang So, who later becomes King Gwangjong. But between So’s treacherous family members and his tortured past, their romance is far from easy.
Goryeo was required to send tribute to the Mongol Empire, which included shipping young women off to the Yuan Dynasty in China. Against all odds, one of these women rose from her low class position to become the powerful empress of the Yuan Dynasty. A story of one woman’s ambitions and loves, “Empress Ki” is a unique look at an aspect of Goryeo’s history that reached outside of the kingdom’s borders.
“Six Flying Dragons”
Filled with action, idealogical conflict, and complex characters brought to life by an all-star cast, “Six Flying Dragons” is simply a must-watch. This sageuk takes place at the end of the Goryeo period, depicting the upheaval around the establishment of the Joseon Dynasty by King Taejo. An epic through and through, “Six Flying Dragons” puts a unique spin on actual historical events surrounding the overthrow of Goryeo and the founding of Joseon.
Catch “Six Flying Dragons” here:
Much of Korea’s modern culture has its roots in Joseon society, so it’s no surprise that the overwhelming majority of historical K-dramas depict this era. Joseon saw many advancements in the arts, sciences, and literature; however, one of the most significant achievements of the time was King Sejong the Great’s invention of Hangul, the Korean alphabet. There are so many Joseon-era K-dramas that it’s almost impossible to pick just a few favorites, but the following standout sageuks cover a variety of aspects of Joseon life:
“Moonlight Drawn by Clouds”
“Moonlight Drawn by Clouds” was a huge success, enjoying immense popularity for its refreshingly sweet romance that takes place between a mischievous crown prince and his eunuch, who turns out to be a woman in disguise. You’ll be smiling through the breezy rom-com and cross-dressing confusion of the drama’s first half, while the latter episodes include enough political conflict and suspense to keep you on your toes, rooting for romance to win the day.
Don’t miss “Moonlight Drawn by Clouds”:
“Rebel: Thief Who Stole the People”
“Rebel: Thief Who Stole the People” depicts the life of legendary outlaw Hong Gil Dong, a figure of Korean lore. In a time that offered few opportunities to those not born of wealth, Hong Gil Dong, the son of a servant, puts his talents and intellect to use leading a band of thieves, stealing from the nobles and giving to the poor. Dive into a world of action, romance, and excitement with the story of this champion of social justice.
Watch “Rebel: Thief Who Stole the People” here:
K-dramas love their cross-dressing heroines, but no sageuk does it quite like “Sungkyunkwan Scandal,” which follows a smart young woman through her adventures as a student at the most elite educational institution in Joseon. As if maintaining her disguise weren’t difficult enough (girls were not allowed to be educated), she must do it while navigating the her boisterous male classmates and dealing with her romantic feelings for one in particular.
Start watching “Sungkyunkwan Scandal” here:
“Tree With Deep Roots”
Mystery, history, and romance blend in “Tree With Deep Roots,” which ties in revenge plots, a secret society, and the mysterious murders of several scholars during the time when King Sejong worked to create the Korean alphabet. Not everyone in the palace is thrilled with the invention of Hangul, which ultimately would empower commoners by making literacy more widely accessible. “A Tree With Deep Roots” infuses history with the themes of sacrifice and ideological conflict in a marvelously suspenseful way.
Catch “Tree With Deep Roots” here:
“Jewel in the Palace”
It’s difficult to overstate the widespread impact that this drama had: “Jewel in the Palace” achieved popularity in over 90 countries around the world, kindling global interest in Korean culture while also renewing cultural enthusiasm at home in Korea. The drama is based on the true story of Jang Geum, who became Joseon’s first female royal physician and the third highest-ranking officer in the palace despite the strict, patriarchal Joseon societal structure.
Watch “Jewel in the Palace” below:
The Japanese Occupation of Korea is still an emotionally-charged topic today, and K-dramas set in this era are stirring, patriotic depictions of brave Korean resistance groups that fought against Japanese tyranny. After decades of increasing its influence in Joseon, the Empire of Japan officially annexed Korea in 1910, and began to rapidly industrialize the Peninsula. Japan subjected Koreans to many forms of brutality, from exploiting them for dangerous labor to attempting to eradicate Korean culture, forcing Koreans to speak Japanese and even assume Japanese names.
“Mr. Sunshine” is technically set in the last decades of the Joseon Dynasty, but Japan’s increasing presence in Joseon is central to the political strife of the drama. With pro-Japanese forces seeking control of the Korean Peninsula, a secret network of Joseon resistance fighters struggles to protect their nation’s sovereignty. When an American Marine Corps officer of Korean descent returns to his birth country, his loyalties are tested by the shadow of his own past, as well as by his admiration and romantic feelings for a Joseon noblewoman.
A bestselling author, his fan-turned-anti-fan, and a ghost writer are brought together in modern times through a typewriter that they used in their past lives during the Japanese Occupation. While it begins in the present, “Chicago Typewriter” delves deeper into the historical as the drama goes on, with the unlikely trio working together to uncover the mysteries and tragedies of their past incarnations as resistance fighters. Exceptionally well-written, the story of “Chicago Typewriter” unfolds at the perfect pace, never revealing too much at once and keeping you guessing until the very end.
Watch “Chicago Typewriter” here:
Japan officially withdrew from Korea after its surrender at the end of World War II, in 1945. But in the war’s aftermath, the Soviet Union and the United States, each occupying territory in Korea, could not come to an agreement on the unification of the Peninsula. Thus Korea was divided into North Korea, backed by the Soviets, and South Korea, backed by the U.S. Unsurprisingly, this tense situation erupted into another war in 1950, between North and South Korea. The brutal fighting ended with an armistice in 1953, but the two countries never signed a peace treaty, meaning that the Korean War is technically still going on today — although leaders on both sides have spoken of officially announcing an end to the war at the end of 2018.
“Legend of the Patriots”
“Legend of the Patriots” takes place in the thick of the Korean War, following the lives of several Korean soldiers through the fighting and bloodshed. Rather than focusing on overarching ideals of the two warring sides, the drama zooms in on its characters, focusing on war’s impact on individual people. The effect is a stirring tale of camaraderie, sacrifice, and humanity during a time of extreme suffering.
Well, that’s all of Korea’s major historical periods up until the present! Are you interested in one of these historical eras? Which of these K-dramas are you going to check out next? Let us know in the comments!
hgordon stays up way too late on weeknights marathoning K-dramas and trying to keep up with the latest K-pop releases. Her favorite historical dramas include “The King Loves” and “Scarlet Heart: Goryeo.”