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From Child Actors to Top Stars

Every May 5 is National Children's Day in South Korea, a public holiday that allows parents to spend precious quality time with their kids. This Children's Day, GwenchaNoona celebrates the veteran k-drama stars who have graduated from playing younger versions of main characters to leading roles. These talented actors and actresses have a special place in the hearts of longtime k-drama fans (especially those who loved Queen Seondeok and Moon Embracing the Sun!) who have watched them grow up and successfully transition to adulthood.

Park Eun-bin

At the recently-held 59th Baeksasng Arts Awards, Park Eun-bin joined the elite ranks of Baeksang Daesang-winning actresses for her portrayal of Woo Young-woo, a whale-loving lawyer with autism spectrum disorder in Extraordinary Attorney Woo. In her heartwarming acceptance speech, the 30 year old actress mentioned that she had been acting for 25 years, reminding us that although she may be young, she’s actually already an industry veteran.

Having debuted as a child actress at the age of five in 1996, Park Eun-bin has one of the most extensive filmographies among her peers, with over 50 dramas and movies to her name. Park Eun-bin spent her early years playing the younger version of other actresses, such as Kim Ha-neul (Stained Glass, 2004) and Han Ji-min (Resurrection, 2005). In 2012, she landed her first lead role in the fantasy do-over drama Operation Proposal, reuniting her with fellow child actor Yoo Seung-ho whom she had acted with in the historical drama The Legend (2007).

As an adult, her most memorable roles include the quirky Song Ji-won in both seasons of the coming-of-age female ensemble drama Age of Youth (2016 & 2017), the feisty baseball operations manager Lee Se-young in Hot Stove League (2019), and the classical violinist Chae Song-ah in Do You Like Brahms? (2020), a role for which she took violin lessons for three months.

In 2022, she received a Baeksang Best Actress nomination for her role in the KBS historical gender-bender The King’s Affection and followed it with her highly-acclaimed performance in Extraordinary Attorney Woo.

Lee Se-young

Twenty five years since her debut, Lee Se-young is at the top of her game. Her stunning performance in the hit historical drama The Red Sleeve earned her multiple acting nominations and a Top Excellence Award from the MBC Awards, and her most recent drama, the legal rom-com Law Cafe reigned over its timeslot.

It has been quite an interesting journey to the top for this young veteran actress with arguably the most unique showbiz origin story: Lee Se-young’s mother wanted her daughter’s face to be known by the public to minimize her chances of getting kidnapped! After making her debut on the popular children's show Popopo at the age of five, Lee Se-young would go on to play many younger version roles–most famously, in the international hit drama Jewel in the Palace (2003), and earn her very first Baeksang Arts Awards nomination for the film Lovely Rivals (2004) when she was only 13.

She put her career on hold to attend regular school, but experienced being bullied precisely because of her fame and beauty. She then learned to use humor as a coping mechanism, and developed the bright, hilarious personality her colleagues and fans love her for.

Returning to acting as an adult, she earned her first Baeksang acting trophy for the family drama The Gentlemen of Wolgyesu Tailor Shop in 2016, and is known for taking on diverse roles: a young queen in The Crowned Clown (2019), an anesthesiology resident in Doctor John (2019), a criminal profiler in Memorist (2020), and even three roles in a single drama for the 2017 fantasy series Hwayugi (Korean Odyssey).

Yoo Seung-ho

In 1999, six-year-old Yoo Seung-ho debuted as a mobile phone ad model. and was cast in the drama Daddy Fish the following year. He became famous when he portrayed a city brat in his first film, the unexpected hit The Way Home (2002). Later, he starred in the children’s TV series Magic Warriors Mir & Gaon (2005) and in children’s movies Hearty Paws (2006) and Unforgettable (2008). The sought-after younger version of male leads, he appeared in the dramas Immortal Admiral Yi Sun-sin (2004), The King and I (2007), and The Legend (2007).

Growing into his teens, he took on roles worthy of Baeksang Best New Actor nominations in the same award period, one for the film 4th Period Mystery (2009) and another for the series Master of Study (2010). Seeking a more mature character, he played an uninterested chaebol heir who marries at 21 in the drama Flames of Desire (2010). He finally landed his first lead role in the romance fantasy series Operation Proposal (2012).

While he joined the hit dramas Queen Seondeok (2009) and Arang and the Magistrate (2012), he kept going out of his comfort zone, even appearing in music videos for So Ji-sub's songs and trying voice acting in Leafie, a Hen into the Wild (2011).

After his discharge from mandatory military service in 2014, his lead role offers keep coming—a swindler in his the movie Seondal: The Man Who Sells the River (2016), a secret crown prince in the series The Emperor: Owner of the Mask (2017), a chaebol heir with allergies in I'm Not a Robot (2017), and a detective who can read memories in Memorist (2020).

Kim Yoo-joung

When she was only 17 years old, Kim Yoo-jung was ranked 8th in Forbes Korea Power Celebrity list. That’s hardly surprising since she has been acting since the age of four! After she debuted in 2003, she quickly became one of the most sought-after child actresses in Korea.

In 2012, she received a Baeksang Arts Award nomination for Best New Actress in Television for her breakout role in Mooon Embracing the Sun as the 13-year-old version of the role played by Han Ga-in. The drama reached a peak of 42.2 percent viewership ratings and showed its audiences that Kim Yoo-jung wasn’t just a pretty actress but a talented one as well.

Kim Yoo-jung was dubbed the “Sageuk Fairy” for starring in many sageuks such as Queen Seondeok (2009), Grudge:The Revolt of Gulmiho (2010), Moon Embracing the Sun (2012), Love in the Moonlight (2016), and more recently Lovers of the Red Sky (2021).

Her leading role in Love in the Moonlight ushered in a host of other lead roles in the film Because I Love You (2017) and the television dramas Clean with a Passion for Now (2018) and Backstreet Rookie (2020).

She was most recently part of the popular variety series Young Actors’ Retreat and the Netflix youth romance 20th Century Girl.

Nam Ji-hyun

If you look at Nam Ji-hyun’s filmography, you will find that she’s been in some of the most successful dramas of Korean television. An award-winning child actress, Nam Ji-hyun became famous for her younger-version portrayals of Han Ji-hye in the k-drama East of Eden (2008), Lee Yo-won in Queen Seondeok (2009), Han Ye-seul in Will It Snow for Christmas? (2009), and Ku Hye-sun in Angel Eyes (2014).

She started to diversify her roles in the one-act drama Girl Detective, Park Hae-sol (2012), youth series To the Beautiful You (2012), and family drama What Happens to My Family? (2014). She was also cast in the movies A Reason to Live (2011), Hwayi: A Monster Boy (2013), and The Tunnel (2016).

As an adult, she’s starred in a few dramas in the leading role. She plays a webtoon artist who attempts to alter an unfortunate event in her life by agreeing to go back in time with nine other people in 365: Repeat the Year (2020). In the sweet rom-com Shopaholic Louis (2016) , Nam Ji-hyun shares very believable chemistry with Seo In-guk. In Suspicious Partner (2017), she plays a former Taekwondo athlete who becomes a prosecutor trainee opposite Ji Chang-wook. And in 2022’s Little Women, she fights for her sisters against a secret organization as a tough news reporter.

No longer playing anyone’s younger persona, she’s proven that time and opportunity have only honed this talented actress’ skills.

Yeo Jin-goo

Yeo Jin-goo has been breaking and collecting noona hearts since he was a tiny eight-year-old boy clad in a yellow raincoat! Considered one of the youngest actors to be given the title of “Nation’s Little Brother”, Yeo Jin-goo made his debut in the 2005 star-studded melodrama film, “Sad Movie.” He continued to capture the hearts of viewers in films and television dramas – most notable are his work on A Frozen Flower (2008), Tazza (2008), Giant (2010), Moon Embracing the Sun (2012), and Missing You (2012).

His dedication to acting garnered him multiple Best Young Actor and New Actor Award nominations and wins from different broadcasting stations and awarding bodies – including a nomination at the 48th Baeksang Arts Awards. Most notably, his titular role in the movie Hwayi: A Monster Boy (2013) earned him the Best New Actor Award at the Blue Dragon Film Awards, KOFRA Film Awards, and the Korean Association of Film Critics Awards.

Yeo Jin-goo continued to build his career and showcase his skills in fantasy rom-coms (Orange Marmalade, 2015; My Absolute Boyfriend, 2019), sageuks (The Royal Gambler, 2016; The Crowned Clown, 2019), supernatural romance (Hotel del Luna, 2019), in the crime thriller (Beyond Evil, 2021), and in the fantasy mystery Link: Eat, Love, Kill (2022).

He has also shown his endearing personality in the k-variety traveling show, House on Wheels 1 (2020) and as the main host of the girl group survival show, Girls Planet 999 (2021).

Kim So-hyun

With over 37 television and nine film credits to her name, Kim So-hyun is one of the hardest working and most prolific actors in South Korea. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider the fact that she’s only 23 years old. Throughout her 16-year career, she has earned a litany of nicknames from the public and media, including “Nation’s Little Sister,” “Queen of Child Actresses,””Little Son Ye-jin,” and “Goddess of Historical Dramas.”

Kim So-hyun made her acting debut in the KBS short drama special Ten Minute, Minor (2006) when she was just six, and was cast every subsequent year as the young version of adult characters. By the age of 12, she was appearing in as many as seven projects in a single year, and made her breakout in the massively popular 2012 sageuk Moon Embracing the Sun.

The hit youth drama Who Are You: School 2015 marked her beginnings as a lead, and gave her the opportunity to flex her skills in dual roles. Since then, she has starred as the main character in several popular dramas including Bring It On, Ghost (2016), The Emperor: Owner of the Mask (2017), The Tale of Nokdu (2019), and two seasons of Love Alarm (2019-2021). Historical dramas having always been one of her strengths, she aptly earned her first Baeksang Arts Awards Best Actress nomination for the sageuk River Where the Moon Rises (2021), where she once again excelled in dual roles.

Kim Hyang-gi

Boasting of a career spanning over a decade and starting at 29 months old, Kim Hyang-gi has grown not only in age, but also in the maturity of her roles: Last year, she portrayed a lonely widow in Poong, the Joseon Psychiatrist and a Korean spy in the Korean-Japanese naval battle film Hansan: Rising Dragon.

At the age of three, she worked with Jung Woo-sung in a Paris Baguette ad in 2003. She later debuted as an actor in the 2006 movie Heart is…, opposite Yoo Seung-ho. This was followed by her small-screen debut in the 2007 SBC melodramatic series Salt Doll. Since then, she has proved to be not only a prolific child actor, but also an accomplished one.

She starred in the MBC dramedy “The Queen's Classroom” (2013), winning Best Young Actress at the APAN Star Awards and the Seoul International Youth Film Festival. She then co-starred with Kim Hee-ae in the movie “Thread of Lies” (2014) as a bullying victim, earning a Baeksang Best New Actress award. Opposite Ju Ji-hoon and Ha Jung-woo, she played a grim reaper in Korea’s third highest-grossing film of the year, "Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds" (2017), bagging the Blue Dragon Best Supporting Actor award. She also won a slew of popularity awards for the movie and its sequel, “Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days” (2018). It wasn’t long before she won three Best Actress awards for her role as a teen with Asperger’s Syndrome and the sole witness to murder in the legal mystery film “Innocent Witness” (2019). Reuniting with Jung Woo-sung after 16 years, she recreated with him the baguette commercial for a cute V-Live photo.

In 2022, Kim Hyang-gi took on the role of a shy hairdressing apprentice in the slice of life drama Salon de Nabi.

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