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  • Writer's pictureVivian Moh

What K-dramas tell us about society

Korean drama imitates life… and life imitates Korean drama.

Beyond just melodramatic, draggy and seemingly unrealistic plot, K-dramas have a unique way of highlighting social issues in a direct, respectful and light-hearted manner that is easily digestible for the audience. Let’s explore how some K-dramas have shed light on largely sensitive and overlooked topics in South Korean society and how these issues may reflect right here on our sunny island.

Although draggy at some points, this drama is wayyy too underrated for how impactful its plot is. This drama revolves around police officers in South Korea, and I’m not talking about those detectives who do cool crime-solving jobs like in Signal. I’m talking about those who do the bone-breaking work at the precinct offices, those that break up fights between drunks, bring them back to the police station, and clean up after their vomit. Yep, what a badass job that is…

Unlike many sentimental K-dramas where we have the main characters going on and on about how they were inspired to be a police officer to serve society, Live's characters behaved in a diametrically opposing manner - they were not inclined to be police officers to begin with. Against the highly competitive job-seeking market, they stood no chance and had no choice but to apply to be a police officer (and even then, they had to go through tough circumstances just to get the job…)

Other than the daily struggles of police officers, the drama discusses the highly important and sensitive topic of sexual assault and harassment. Given the alarmingly high rate of sexual assault and harassments cases in South Korea, the drama sends a strong message to its audience that the victims should never be the ones who suffer alone in silence, guilt and shame while the perpetrators go scot-free. Live definitely did not shy away from being painfully honest in facing societal issues upfront.

If you're very interested in this topic, do watch Silenced. The film (also starring Jung Yu-mi) is based on events that took place at Gwangju Inhwa School for the hearing-impaired, where young deaf students were the victims of repeated sexual assaults by faculty members over a period of five years in the early 2000s. The film (and the novel it was adapted from) brought the case to the public's eye and was eventually reinvestigated by the police.

This drama reflects the struggles of single mothers, particularly unwed single mothers, in the largely conservative South Korean society. As young and beautiful Oh Dong-Baek (Gong Hyo-Jin) moves into a new town to set up a restaurant, she faces not only sexual harassment from men who perceive her to be an “easy target”, but also the wrath of the ahjummas (aunties) living in the area who judged her as promiscuous and threats to their marriages.

Though it's baffling and heartbreaking that the drama pits women against other women, this precisely depicts the stereotypical judgements and criticism that unwed single mothers in South Korean society have to face on a day-to-day basis.

Although things do get better as the ahjummas got to know Dong Baek, it was a rude awakening when her main protector (aka leader of the ahjummas, and a widowed single mother), Kwak Deok-soon (Go Doo-Shim), strongly opposed her son, Hwang Yong-Sik (Kang Ha-neul) from pursing Dong Baek because she's a single mother. Talk about hypocrisy, right? ☹️

In the same vein, unwed single mothers in Singapore still face a lot of social discrimination and legislative disadvantages when it comes to fundamental needs such as housing or even having their biological child recognised as their legitimate child.

Note: In case you didn't know, "Under the law, a child is legitimate only if he or she was born or conceived during the existence of a valid marriage between his or her biological parents. Consequently, a child born out of wedlock is considered illegitimate." - Singapore Legal Advice

Not gonna lie, I watched this drama because I’m a staunch fan of Lee Jong Suk (still waiting for more LJS content in his post-military-discharged life). But I was pleasantly surprised because this drama moved me to tears.

Right from the very beginning, the story revolves around a publishing company, and as an avid reader, this is right up my alley. Beyond that, the plot depicts the struggles of a divorced mother, Kang Dan-I (Lee Na-Young) who finds herself in a sticky situation because

  1. she’s homeless, and as her cheating ex-husband sold their house, she had to live off her good friend, Cha Eun-Ho (Lee Jong-Suk) while

  2. penniless and struggling to find a job. Ironically, her high educational background and qualifications are the main reasons for her troubles in finding employment. This is an odd dilemma, but it’s understandable. Based on her qualifications, the company should offer her a high pay, but because she has been out of touch with the advertising industry since she became an unemployed housewife after her marriage, they are unsure whether she’ll still be an asset to the company.

Additionally, the issue of being unfamiliar with the company hierarchy is disadvantageous especially for her age. Age-wise, she would be older, but rank wise, she might be inferior, leading to the company rejecting her to avoid unnecessary troubles.

I believe that such an issue should be discussed especially with the tendency of South Korean women to quit their jobs after marriage to care for their families. With the high rates of divorce, many women may become very vulnerable after being financially dependent on their husbands for so long.

Unfortunately, this is also quite an issue of concern in Singapore, with 118,700 female residents (aged 15 and above) are not in the work force because they are caring for their family members as reported in "Labour Force in Singapore 2019". Other than how the invisible labour that stay-home mothers do is often unacknowledged, other concerns such as the lack of retirement adequate also potentially pose as a huge issue in their future.

Sky Castle touches on a topic that is so close to many South Korean families’ hearts - getting into a good university.. cough Seoul National University in particular.

Sky Castle, which may seem exaggerated (at times…) with how parents (and some children themselves) are overly obsessed with grades, provides a crucial social commentary on how this toxic fixation with grades and academic achievements can literally kill.

Regrettably, the popularity of the drama does not undercut this notion of academic excellence in South Korea as it has been too deeply ingrained within societal norms.

Coupled with the highly competitive job market, said notion is likely to stay for a long while.

On top of being an engaging entertainment that leaves one on the edge of their seats with its heart-grippingly intense cliffhangers, Sky Castle is also a grim and poignant reminder to all the kiasu parents of Singapore society how academic fixation can result in detrimental and irreversible impacts on their children.

Itaewon Class, based on a webtoon of the same name, tells the tale of an ex-convict who works his way up to exacting the sweet revenge against his father’s murderer with the help of his squad #squadgoals

More importantly, the plot features two unique characters that are not quite conventional in a typically conservative South Korean society. First up is Ma Hyun-Yi (Lee Joo-Young), a transgender character who faces discrimination and public judgement after being outed by one of her friends.

Secondly, we have Tony Kim (Chris Lyon), a Guinean character who grew up in South Korea all his life but is constantly treated as though he is a foreigner because of his dark skin. By documenting the struggles that such individuals face, the drama encourages important discussion and raises awareness for a more inclusive South Korean society.

Despite the different contexts, Singapore society, likewise, still has a loooooooooong way to go when it comes to genuine inclusivity and open acceptance of various communities.

Jealousy Incarnate / Don't Dare to Dream

Although many may know of Jealousy Incarnate as the K-drama with the highly-problematic love triangle (at least this is how I remember it even after five years…), this drama is so important in opening discussions about breast cancer amongst men. This helps with the destigmatisation of such an illness, especially because breast cancer is often associated as a "women's disease.

In the drama, Lee Hwa-Shin (Cho Jung-Seok) is diagnosed with breast cancer after a hilarious yet informative scene of Pyo Na-Ri (Gong Hyo-Jin) feeling up his chest (rather inappropriately, if I may add...) to find a lump and subsequently, shares about breast cancer.

Not only does Hwa-Shin’s story depict how mentally and physically draining the period of getting diagnosed and treated for breast cancer is, it also showed the prejudice and societal judgement he receives from being a male breast cancer patient.

From his singular option of a pink hospital gown, to the apathetic nurses (who failed to share about a unique post-breast cancer surgery bra), and even to his own mother terming him as a "pervert", Hwa Shin's experience is not just a stray outlier.

Pyo Na-ri (Gong Hyo-jin) dons on the patient wear as a disguise to accompany Lee Hwa-shin (Cho Jung-seok) for his medical checkup.

Jealousy Incarnate highlights the important topic of males suffering from breast cancer and how the South Korean society should work towards increasing awareness and being more open-minded about it.


K-dramas are often perceived as light-hearted entertainment with eye-candies for cast members and ridiculous, otherworldly plots that steal us away from the harsh reality of society. But these K-dramas have proven themselves capable of bringing up overlooked yet essential societal issues and discussions that are long overdue. All the while disguised as unassuming and frivolous entertainment.

It's time to look beyond the stereotypical lens and judgement of K-dramas and be introspective about how the issues brought up are also reminiscent of our Singapore society, regardless of the cultural differences and context.

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