The 12 Top Historical K-Dramas You Can't Miss!

Take a trip to a parallel universe or the era of the Korean Joseon Dynasty as you watch these spectacular dramas.

By Magazine Desk |
Some of the best historical Korean dramas ever!
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PUBLISHED July 09, 2024

K-drama enthusiasts know that there's a perfect K-drama for everyone, whether you're a romance lover or a thriller aficionado. 

History fans can dive into the captivating world of Korea's period dramas, known as saeguks. These historical K-dramas typically unfold during the country's dynastic eras, focusing on the royal courts of the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties.

However, some exceptional series also explore pivotal moments in Korea's more recent past. Don't expect just straightforward melodramas; the K-drama industry's knack for blending genres means many top historical series feature elements like time travel, gender swaps, fantasy magic, and enough rom-com plots to satisfy even the most ardent romance fans.

No one does period dramas better than South Korea. Read on for a curated list of the finest historical K-dramas to watch, from zombie horror sagas to grand romances and fantastical adventures.

  1. Alchemy of Souls (2022-2023), Netflix

Period: Set in a fictional country, similar to the Joseon era (1392-1910)

Set in the enchanted realm of Daeho, this fantasy saeguk follows the tale of Nak-su (Go Yoon-jung), a skilled assassin on the run. To conceal her identity, she transfers her soul into a different body, but inadvertently ends up in Mu-deok (Jung So-min), a frail servant incapable of wielding magic. Stripped of her powers, Nak-su crosses paths with Jang Wook (Lee Jae-wook), a mage heir cursed to be unable to use his abilities. Determined to break his curse, Jang Wook makes Nak-su his mentor, hoping she can help him reclaim his powers.

  1. 100 Days My Prince (2018), Netflix

Period: Fictional story within the Joseon era (1392-1910)

If you're after a delightful period rom-com, this one's a must-watch. Lee Yul (D.O. of EXO) and Hong-shim (Nam Ji-hyun) were childhood sweethearts separated by tragedy. Sixteen years later, Lee Yul is the cold Crown Prince, decreeing all citizens must marry. Hong-shim, now the oldest bachelorette, faces punishment for staying single. After an assassination attempt, an amnesiac Lee Yul is saved by Hong-shim's father. Unaware of his true identity, he proposes to Hong-shim to save her from punishment.

  1. Kingdom (2019-2020), Netflix

Period: Early 17th-century Joseon

This acclaimed horror drama blends South Korea's zombie craze with Joseon-era politics. A devastating plague sweeps through the country, even infiltrating the royal palace. Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju) teams up with physicians Seo-Bi (Bae) and Yeong-Shin (Kim Sung-kyu) to uncover the mystery behind the disease and secure his claim to the throne. Meanwhile, the scheming pregnant Queen Consort (Kim Hye-jun) and the treacherous Chief State Councilor (Ryu) plot to seize power for themselves.

  1. Gyeongseong Creature (2023– ), Netflix 

Period: 1945, in Japanese-occupied Gyeongseong (modern-day Seoul)

This genre-blending historical horror-thriller, with a touch of romance, unfolds in the last days of Japan's occupation of Korea. The malevolent General Kato (Choi Young-joon) moves his horrifying creature, a product of human experiments, to Gyeongseong. Business owner Jang Tae-sang (Park Seo-jun) is searching for a commissioner's missing mistress, while private detective Yoon Chae-ok (Han So-hee) is on a quest to find her mother, who disappeared a decade ago. As they join forces, their investigation leads them directly to Kato's monstrous creation, and sparks begin to fly between them.

  1. Under the Queen’s Umbrella (2022), Netflix

Period: Set in some fictional period within Korea's Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910)

Set in an imagined era of the Joseon dynasty, this series focuses on transforming troublesome princes, who bring chaos to the royal family, into exemplary members of royalty using elite education methods. Queen Hwa-ryeong (Kim Hye-soo), tasked with maintaining grace and dignity, faces the challenge of guiding these wayward princes toward becoming proper heirs.

  1. The Red Sleeve (2021), Viki

Period: The mystery thriller is a fictionalised account of gungnyeo (court maids) during South Korea's Joseon era. 

Inspired by the novel ‘The Red Sleeve,’ this series chronicles a royal court romance during the Joseon dynasty. It follows the King, who prioritises his duty to the kingdom over personal love, and a determined court lady who strives to safeguard her chosen life. The narrative unfolds from the perspective of the court lady, offering a unique glimpse into their poignant and complex relationship.

  1. Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung (2019), Netflix

Period: 19th Century Korea

A determined female historian, Goo Hae-ryung (Shin Se-kyung), battles gender discrimination as she pursues her passion for documenting history. Her journey becomes complicated when she crosses paths with Prince Lee Rim (Cha Eunwoo), causing the boundaries between her professional duties and personal feelings to blur.

  1. The King's Affection (2021), Netflix

Period: Fictional story within the Joseon era (1392-1910)

This epic rom-com features a female lead disguising herself as a man, a common theme in saeguks for women seeking more freedom or, in rare cases, covering for a twin brother. Dam-yi (Park) takes on the identity of her twin brother, Prince Lee-hwi, after his death. To maintain the deception, she keeps her distance from others, but her resolve wavers when her childhood love, Jung Ji-woon (Rowoon, former SF9), becomes her tutor. Unaware of her true identity, Ji-woon is puzzled by his growing feelings for the Crown Prince.

  1. Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo (2016), Viki

Period: Mid-900s, Goryeo dynasty.

This beloved saeguk, known for its all-star cast and heart-wrenching ending (consider yourself warned!), follows the story of modern-day woman Go Ha-jin (IU), who is mysteriously transported back to the Goryeo era. There, she finds herself in the body of Hae Soo, a royal court lady. Her vibrant and unconventional personality quickly captures the attention of King Taejo's (Jo Min-ki) many sons. As Hae Soo navigates the complex dynamics of the royal family, she falls deeply in love with one of the princes. However, their romance is thwarted by political machinations, leading the story into darker, more intense territory.

  1. Pachinko (2022– ), Apple TV+

Period: Spans from 1910-1989

Based on Min Jin Lee's novel, this stunning international series follows one family's saga from 1910s Japanese-occupied Korea to 1980s Tokyo. The story focuses on Sunja (portrayed by Kim Min-ha as a young woman and Youn Yuh-jung in her later years), who leaves Korea for Imperial Japan in search of better opportunities. Although Sunja is a fictional character, her story reflects the resilience of Korean women, known as Zainichi, who migrated to Japan during colonial rule.

  1. Mr. Sunshine (2018), Netflix

Period: Late 1800s to early 1900s, before Japanese occupation.

This intense, star-studded tragic drama centres on an unexpected romance during a turbulent period in Joseon's history. Eugene Choi (Lee), once an orphaned child of enslaved people, escapes to the U.S., becomes a Marine, and returns to Joseon on a diplomatic mission. There, he meets Go Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri), an aristocratic woman turned sniper for Korea’s Righteous Army, fighting against Japanese occupation. The series chronicles Ae-shin and her comrades' struggle for independence and her complicated romance with Eugene, complicated further by her engagement to another man.

  1. The King: Eternal Monarch (2020), Netflix

Period: Parallel/alternate universe

Although this series does not fall under the category of a traditional saeguk at all, this list would be incomplete without it. Set in parallel worlds, the series follows Emperor Lee Gon of the Kingdom of Corea, who discovers a portal to an alternate reality created by his half-uncle, Lee Lim. In this alternate reality, the Republic of Korea exists in place of the Kingdom. Lee Gon embarks on a mission to stop Lee Lim's crimes and recover the missing half of the Manpasikjeok, the key to travelling between the two worlds.