Updated: Mar 31
To mark Women's Month this March, we have prepared a series of female-centric features that celebrate the best that k-dramas have to offer.
In this first installment, the GwenchaNoonas reflect on the strong female leads who left a lasting impression on us. Most of these characters are from dramas that aired over the past few years, signaling a rise in the number of unconventional strong female leads in k-dramaland.
Goo Hae-ryung (Shin Se-kyung) of Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung (2019)
Goo Hae-ryung from Rookie Historian, the eponymous role played skillfully by Shin Se-kyung, is one of the most interesting female characters to come out of a sageuk (historical drama).
In 19th century Joseon, Hae-ryung’s very existence is anomalous. For one, she is an unmarried 26-year-old. For another, she can read and write. And to top it all off, she holds a job interning to be a historian in the Royal Palace. Most sageuk noblewomen are portrayed as scheming mothers and wives plotting masterfully behind their husband’s and son’s backs, or helpless young women waiting to be traded off by their fathers and brothers for political gain. But Hae-ryung surprises us by choosing her own destiny and inadvertently altering history in the process.
She is a young, independent, forthright career woman who solves mysteries and pushes for reform on one hand. And on the other, she is completely believable as an awkward, inexperienced, spontaneous woman in love with a younger man, who happens to be the sheltered and innocent prince (Cha Eun-woo). While the story is entirely fictional, with many anachronous events and storylines (there were never any female historians in the Joseon era), Hae Ryung’s character shows a very real longing for every woman’s desires—to be treated justly in the workplace, not to be judged for the choices she makes, and to define her romantic relationships beyond society’s standards—desires all women can relate to in any century and country.
Shin Ga-Hyun (Nam Ji-hyun) of 365: Repeat the Year (2020)
Shin Ga-hyun (Nam Ji-hyun) is 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). The time travel sets off a series of murderous events that result in the death of each of the time travelers. Ga-hyun’s life is at stake and yet she refuses to play the victim in this highly suspenseful story.
She doesn’t sit around waiting to be saved by the police detective (Lee Jyun-hyuk), and instead forms an equal alliance with him in order to solve the mystery. Using both intellect and intuition, she sets off on her own investigation, confronts the villain(s), and makes sacrifices when the need arises. Without resorting to guns or unusual physical strength, Ga-hyun shows that a woman is just as capable of saving the day.
Ko Eun-kang (Chae Soo-bin) of Rookie Cops (2022)
Ko Eun-kang (Chae Soo-bin) dreams of entering the Korean National Police Academy because...her crush is there. It’s hardly a noble intention. But in the course of her studies, the young and spirited rookie comes of age and finds her purpose and calling.
An unwitting hero, Eun-kang has an innate sense of justice and uncanny intuition for solving mysteries. Faced with the unfair practice of hazing and corruption in the police, she makes a stand and, along with her friends, takes down the unjust system. But she’s not all work and—like any young adult her age—has fun dating, making new friends, and basically living a wholesome university experience.
Eun-kang’s unbreakable spirit has us rooting for her on every step of her journey.
Dr. Ji Sun-woo (Kim Hee-ae) of The World of the Married (2020)
Betrayed wives all over the world found their voice—and drew much strength—in the electrifying performance of Kim Hee-ae as Dr. Ji in 2020's runaway hit, The World of the Married.
As a wife whose seemingly perfect marriage comes crashing down upon the discovery of her husband's infidelity, Dr. Ji is the farthest from a meek victim, and Kim Hee-ae brings tremendous nuance to the complexities of the female psyche undergoing such incredible stress. She can be a doting mother and wife, but when the callousness of both spouse and the mistress get to her, there's no telling how far a woman can go to save her child...and herself.
Oh Sunny (Jang Na-ra) of The Last Empress (2018)
Makjangs (a Korean drama genre similar to the Mexican telenovela) are rife with outlandish and badass characters, but the strongest of them are usually those who are able to keep their cool in the midst of the crazy storm. Enter Oh Sunny (portrayed by the amazing Jang Na-ra), a naïve theater actress who, by force of circumstance, marries the emperor of a fictional modern-day Korean monarchy.
It is fascinating to watch a woman come to terms with the harsh realities of palace life, and once Oh Sunny wakes up to the manipulations of everyone around her (including her husband), she quickly battens down and uses her skills and wits to plot her way out of the madness. Despite rousing the affections of both the emperor and her bodyguard along the way, Oh Sunny stays focused on her mission and in the final twist, chooses to yield to neither. After all, when a woman needs to bring down an empire... well, as the meme goes, "ain’t nobody got time for that."
Ko Moon-young (Seo Yea-ji) of It's Okay to Not Be Okay (2020)
As soon as she dangerously toyed with her dinner knife in the first episode of It's Okay to Not Be Okay (2020), it was clear that we were about to have another "interesting" female lead. But Ko Moon-young (Seo Yea-ji) would become more than that. In fact, she would come to evolve into the unexpected anti-heroine we did not know we needed to see onscreen.
Not only does she—repeatedly—make the first move on her man, but her character is also complex enough to accommodate all the dark female desires often considered taboo in Asian society: resentful of one's parents, too comfortable with being alone, overtly sexual, and resistant to domesticity, among other traits.
It was a role made perfect by Seo Yea-ji, whose acting chops and trademark huskiness would make Moon-young the lovable savage we would all end up rooting for. Of course, it didn't hurt that Seo Yea-ji's face and features fit her incredible couture wardrobe perfectly, taking Ko Moon-young from just being an "interesting" character to making her one of the most stylish and compelling characters in k-dramaland.
Go Hye-ran (Kim Nam-joo) of Misty (2018)
Kim Nam-joo delivers a flawless performance of the flawed—and incredibly complex—broadcaster Go Hye-ran in Misty, a drama centered on one woman's fight to survive the cutthroat (and often misogynistic) world of Korean broadcasting and politics.
Not many k-dramas deal with the unpalatable realities of women in Korean workplaces, or even touch sensitive issues such as abortion, female-initiated adultery, and divorce, but that is exactly what Misty is all about, and only a few veteran actresses like Kim Nam-joo could have pulled it all off with the requisite nuance and finesse.
Helmed by The World of the Married director Mo Wan-il, the drama further gilds the lily of Go Hye-ran's performance with incredible cinematography and topnotch visuals, making Misty a sharp and stylish commentary on the price some women have to pay to fulfill their most honest ambitions.
Yoon Hye-jin (Shin Min-ah) of Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha (2021)
She may have first seemed like a snobby Seoulite who moved to a sleepy coastal town just to make money, but she certainly charmed her way into our hearts and ended up becoming one of the most memorable (and favorited!) female leads in recent k-dramaland.
Yoon Hye-jin, played by the skillful Shin Min-ah, is no coquettish pushover who centers her life on finding a man; in fact, her entire life is a full and vibrant expression of who she is and what she stands for even without a love interest. She's a competent and empathetic dentist to the Gongjin community, a stalwart friend to Pyo Mi-seon, a fellow fangirl to Ju-ri, and a runner in her spare time. She's also unbothered by how she doesn't conform to antiquated "feminine" expectations, like not being able to cook (but hilariously tries!) and how much messier her room is compared to Chief Hong's. She's no shy butterfly and accepts compliments because she simply knows she's good at what she does. Hye-jin is as charming, vibrant, and smart as they come, and a genuinely good human being to boot.
Is she perfect? Hardly. Vocalizing her honest opinion had certainly made her unlikeable to many, but her ability to apologize quickly when she is in the wrong and make up for her mistakes shows that she isn't the heartless Seoulite people would eagerly peg her to be. Her ability to wear her heart on her sleeve and go after what—and who—she wants has also given fans of Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha the cutest dating (fake and real) scenes, unforgettable kisses, and even a hilarious mutual proposal with a very smitten man. But when the going gets tough—whether it be delivering a baby, consoling a friend, rejecting an old crush, or standing by her man while he deals with his own trauma—she's a reliable source of grace and strength, too. Dimples, depth, and so much more. So who can blame Chief Hong for falling for her when we all did?
Ji Seung-wan (Lee Joo-myung) of Twenty-Five Twenty-One (2022)
In the harsh arena of high school life, the battle to achieve "cool" status is as timeless as it is draining. It can even be more difficult for teenage girls, who seem to find themselves stuffed into stereotypes they didn't want: the prom queen, the "sexy" chick, the artist, the weirdo, the nerd. Often, they need to give up something they really love in order to be considered truly "cool”, such as hiding their geekier hobbies or avoiding sports to not get a scratch.
Ji Seung-wan (Lee Joo-myoung), the class president at Taeyang High, seems to have bypassed all the teenage angst and meandering to emerge fully formed from coolness, like Athena from Zeus, as only a genuinely cool character can. She's undoubtedly at the top of her class, but she's also good friends with the resident class clown, Moon Ji-woong (Choi Hyun-wook), whom she is fond of because he introduces to her new worlds. She's a loyal buddy to Na Hee-do (Kim Tae-ri) and Go Yu-rim (Bona), and will go to great lengths—even to the haunted high school at night, when they need her to rescue them. She's respectful to her tenant/sunbae (senior) Baek Yi-jin (Nam Joo-hyuk), and affords him the deference and respect that Korean hierarchy demands. She's a loving daughter to her mom, whom she seems to genuinely like and adore.
But lest she be pigeonholed as just another "perfect" model student, Seung-wan proves she is as streetwise as she is book-smart: watch as she cunningly bribes Yi-jin with food so he gives in to her request, or as she tries to sneak out ginseng liquor on their "school trip." As a pirate DJ with her own internet show, she also opts to vent her frustrations at school abuse through radio, instead of picking a losing fight with the teacher involved. More admirably, she's built a literal space for herself, furnishing a girl-shed in within the school and filling it up with contraband comics that she reads when she needs to chill.
Ji Seung-wan lives in the sweet spot reserved for people who have transcended the requirement for "high school cool”. She also moves with a wisdom and sensibility beyond her years, and at the time of this writing, has not expressed any intention to contort or change herself for anyone. We hope she remains as cool as she is now until the end of the show.
Do Ha-na (Kim Se-jong) of The Uncanny Counter (2020)
The mission of hunting down evil spirits that plague Seoul has fallen to a rather unique group of individuals called "counters." Do Ha-na, played to action-star goodness by Kim Se-jong, is their resident sensate who can read memories through touch. Despite her incredibly tragic backstory involving the loss of her own family, she has still opted to use her powers for good, and finds the courage to be part of a ragtag team whom she eventually considers her new family.
She's an active mentor to the new recruit So-mun (Jo Byeong-gu), and introduces him to the more fantastical side of the world where evil is wrought by demons and the weak are fair game for possession. She also cautions him as he learns to use his own newfound powers, reminding him of the dangerous consequences that belie counters who go against their missions. You never want to cross Ha-na in a fistfight, as this woman will take you down and crush you faster than you can say her name.
Yet in a television world where superheroines are usually assigned skin-baring and sexy outfits, Do Ha-na remains dressed in the unremarkable red tracksuit as her other teammates; a refreshing reminder that her training and physicality isn't meant to titillate audiences. But Ha-na isn't all brute force and maudlin trauma. Her gifts may have made her a counter, but it is her strong sense of loyalty and her ability to work as a reliable member of the team that make her a crucial part of the hunt. Even when she soon finds herself going up against her own blood family, she goes the distance in order to protect those she genuinely loves and the world at large. Her decision to come to terms with her difficult past in order to accept her fate as a counter makes her a hero in her own right, and her hero's journey at par with the four other counters she works with.
Choi Nam-ra (Choi Yi-hyun) of All of Us Are Dead (2022)
Choi Nam-ra, played by Cho Yi-hyun, is the seemingly cold and misunderstood class president in the Netflix high school zombiefest All of Us Are Dead. At the beginning of the series, Nam-ra is a studious but withdrawn student, painfully aware that she's only been made president because of the influence of her rich parents. An introvert, she is intensely observant and quickly pulls information together in her own objective style, a trait that becomes a huge asset in the fight to survive the impending zombie horde.
As the infestation spreads throughout the school, Nam-ra remains reliant on hard facts and tangible evidence to make judgement calls. Her innate sensibility keeps her head above the noise and the drama of her more fearful classmates. As the chaos grows, we find that Nam-ra is wiser than she lets on, and that she does have the interests of her classmates at heart.
What also makes Nam-ra such a refreshing character is that she's not relationship-obsessed as most teenage girls on TV are portrayed to be. Even as she learns that she is the unlikely crush of the class' elusive "bad boy" Lee Soo-hyeok (Solomon Park), she grows even more sensible and grounded, thereby rejecting the lovesick high-schooler trope. Having him and a handful of newfound friends turns her into an even more confident leader who helps strategize the group's next moves.
Smart, introspective, and remarkably calm, Nam-ra seems to have a sense of wisdom beyond her teenage years. Later, when she becomes a threat to her own group, her sensibility and maturity come into full display as we see her make the difficult sacrifices in order to protect the friends she has come to love.
Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon), Squid Game (2021)
If the unusually rapid increase in Jung Ho-yeon's Instagram followers is any indication, then the world has definitely been enthralled by the world-weary pickpocket Kang Sae-byeok. Interestingly enough, her name literally translates to "river dawn," a little-known giveaway lost in translation that hints at how her tough exterior is merely a shell for who she is deep down inside.
As Player 067, Sae-byeok is a North Korean defector who joined the Squid Game to win money that would allow her to be reunited with her family. Often undermined by other players in the Squid Game because of her scrawny and feeble exterior, she ends up becoming the unlikely "tritagonist" who makes it farther than all her detractors. Perpetually calm and unfazed, her difficult life has made Sae-byeok understand the nature of the survival game the most. Beyond her hallowed cheekbones and scowl lie her mastery with a knife, strategic thinking, and fearlessness. She masks her desperation in her inscrutability, and remains extremely focused on winning the grand prize. A lifetime of hardship has taught her to be hesitant to trust others, so she prefers to work alone. Yet she will join the fray if she deems it the more intelligent move, even joining the team of her former gang despite her dislike for the leader. This girl certainly knows how to play.
But as the games escalate in horror and difficulty, Sae-byeok cracks along the way, showing the vulnerability that lies beneath her stoic exterior. We see her break down when she finds herself at the receiving end of someone's sacrifice and when she allows others to take care of her. It is not easy to root for a criminal who has slashed throats but stops someone else from slashing another's throat. But such is the allure of a complex character like Sae-byeok's. A lifetime of crime and desperate living may have made her a dangerous enemy in the Squid Game, but a beating heart and strong will has made her a beloved character to all who watched the biggest Netflix show on the planet.
Lee Ji-an (Lee Ji-eun/IU) of My Ahjussi (2018)
Lee Ji-an (Lee Ji-eun/IU) is an impoverished temporary office worker to whom life has been unjustly cruel. Her circumstances have driven her to cunningly manipulate people and situations in order to survive, regardless of who gets hurt. Unlike most "poor" female leads who live in cute rooftop apartments and inexplicably have killer wardrobes, she lives in a dark, dank studio and owns a single pair of sneakers and maybe three outfits.
Lee Ji-an starts out as a hard, isolated, and cynical character who is downright unlikable, even as we can understand her situation and motivations. But over time we see this young girl, who carries the weight of a “30,000-year-old soul" in her diminutive frame, grow in humanity. She has arguably one of the best redemptive arcs in any k-drama. With the depth of her portrayal, IU made her mark as a serious actress to watch.
Yoon Se-ri (Son Ye-jin) of Crash Landing on You (2019)
Yoon Se-ri—brought to life by the equally amazing Son Ye-jin—may be from the "Top 1%" of Korean society, but she's definitely not a typical spoiled chaebol (conglomerate-owning family) heiress. An illegitimate daughter always made to feel like an outsider, long estranged from her wealthy family, she founds and grows her fashion and beauty empire, Se Ri’s Choice, all on her own. As chairwoman, she runs a tight ship and works through holidays, her motto being “You can sleep when you die.”
When Captain Ri (Hyun Bin) joins her in Seoul, she uses her smarts, resources, and totally badass gangster moves to protect not just herself but her man as well. (And gives him the gender-switched Pretty Woman makeover we didn’t know we needed in our lives!) On more than one occasion, Yoon Se-ri was equally willing to sacrifice her safety, freedom, empire, and her very own life for his. For this and many other reasons, she will always be remembered as one of the most iconic k-drama heroines.
Lee Se-young (Park Eun-bin) of Hot Stove League (2020)
Hot Stove League, the first k-drama about professional baseball, has a cast of about 20 ahjussis plus Park Eun-bin as Lee Se-young—the baseball fan-turned-operations manager of the struggling, bottom-ranked Dreams.
The only female manager in the league, she’s such a feisty little firecracker, and never lets herself be intimidated by the men around her. Although she gets off on the wrong foot with the unconventional new general manager (and male lead, Namgoong Min) she ultimately turns into his ally, using her wits to help him transform the team into winners.
As most workplace romances have a side of romance, it was so refreshing to see a strong female lead play opposite a very attractive male lead without even the slightest hint of attraction or anything more than a professional relationship based on mutual respect.
Oh Dong-baek (Gong Hyo-jin) of When the Camellia Blooms (2019)
Oh Dong-baek (Gong Hyo-jin) is a single mother who runs a pub named “Camellia” in the sleepy seaside town of Ongsan. Despite being ostracized by the small-town ahjummas for her unconventional life choices, and the stigma of having grown up an orphan, she remains unapologetic for who she is. Her only concern is raising her precocious son, Pilgu.
Her quiet strength and refusal to accept unwanted advances from Ongsan’s resident sleaze draws the attention of doting country bumpkin cop Hwang Yong-sik (Kang Ha-neul), who just wants to be by her side even as he acknowledges that she’s the type of woman who doesn’t need a man to protect her.
In a society that marginalizes single mothers, Dongbaek became an icon of hope, and When the Camellia Blooms was hailed as a groundbreaking drama for its relevant social insight.
Sung Deok-im (Lee Se-young) of The Red Sleeve (2021)
Eighteenth-century Joseon was not a good place to be a woman, especially not one bound to a life of servitude within the palace walls. An actual historical figure known for her intelligence and revolutionary thinking, court lady Sung Deok-im (Lee Se-young) was well-aware of the very few freedoms she had as a court lady and was determined to exercise the few choices she was allowed to make.
Sung Deok-im’s independent mindedness and stubborn determination to protect her choices—including saying no to a very tempting Crown Prince Yi San (Lee Jun-ho)—drive the main conflict in The Red Sleeve. While her loyalty to him is unquestionable, whether it is born out of romantic love or a strong sense of duty (or both?) is a theme that threads throughout this hit historical series.
Chae Song-hwa (Jeon Mi-do) of Hospital Playlist 1 & 2 (2020, 2021)
Chae Song-hwa (Jeon Mi-do) is the brilliant professor of neurosurgery and the heart of the Hospital Playlist gang. Deeply intelligent, independent, and empathetic, she aims to help all her patients, residents, and interns to the best of her abilities.
She’s also the resident bassist of her friends’ garage band, and is known to down a dozen egg yolks just to make sure her voice is in top shape (even though they only give her a solo once a year!).
It’s only been a little over two years since Jeon Mi-do made her debut in a television drama leading role, but in that short time she has endeared herself to audiences with her immense talent and adorable personality as this lovable neurosurgeon, mentor, friend, and bass player.
Liam Yeon Kimin
Mo Seok-hee (Lim Soo-hyang) of Graceful Family (2019)
Mo Seok-hee—easily one of Lim Soo-hyang's best roles—is a refreshing take on the bullied chaebol (conglomerate) heir. She’s smart and rich, and isn’t taking the bullying sitting down. Exiled to the US to prevent her from making a claim on the family’s conglomerate, she decides to come back and fight for her rightful place, crushing societal expectations and k-drama cliches along the way.
Though she fights them with the help of a young lawyer, Heo Yoon-do (Lee Jang-woo), she’s no damsel in distress. She can throw a punch—or pull hair—if needed, whether in overalls or couture.
Yeo Hwa-jeong (Lee Bong-ryun) of Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha (2021)
Yeo Hwa-jeong—portrayed with profound intensity by 2021 Baeksang Best Actress for Theatre Lee Bong-ryun—may have just been a supporting role in Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha (2021), but her character is so uniquely compelling that she left a strong enough impression to make it to this list.
She’s not just a highly entrepreneurial divorced mom, juggling a successful seafood restaurant with her landlady responsibilities while raising a smart and responsible son. She’s not just a dependable community leader and empathetic neighbor. She’s also the keeper of the one the greatest secrets of Gongjin: Why did she divorce her husband?
The real heart-rending reason behind why she broke down and divorced her husband for cluttering the house with his used socks cuts deep, but it also reveals a remarkable kind of quiet strength that we hope we never have to be called on to use.
Do Bong-soon (Park Bo-young) of Strong Woman Do Bong-soon (2017)
How many times have women had to hide their true strength, talents, and intelligence for the sake of the fragile egos of the men around them? Do Bong-soon (Park Bo-young), who inherited superhuman strength from the female line of her family, may be a cartoonish representation of how strong women are, but her initial decision to pretend to be weak so that her high school crush would like her is oh so relatable.
As she gains confidence in putting her superpower to good use, especially to save women preyed on by a psychopath, she also finds that the right man—in this case Ahn Min-hyuk (Park Hyung-sik)—would not just accept that she’s stronger than him, but would also help her nurture her strength and willingly take a step back to let her shine.
Oh Hye-jin (Han So-hee) of My Name (2021)
Oh Hye-jin—portrayed by the versatile Han So-hee—is a lonely student whose father, a gangster on the police wanted list, is murdered in front of her eyes. Instead of breaking down, she steels herself and sets out to seek revenge on her father’s killer, proving along the way that women can be just as strong and tough as men—and even smarter than them—whether it be in the world of gangsters or law enforcers.
But her real test comes when her beliefs and assumptions are challenged. Does she dig in, or run away, or admit to them and take responsibility for her actions? Oh Hye-jin’s story is a representation of how true strength is also shown in our ability to acknowledge and recover from our mistakes, and do what it takes to correct them.
Go Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri) of Mr. Sunshine (2018)
As a noblewoman, Go Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri) could have stayed quietly on the sidelines while the rest of her country suffered under the looming Japanese occupation of Korea. In the stinging words of Korean Yakuza member Gu Dong-mae, she could have stayed as “just a noble fool who lives in luxury.”
But she didn’t. With the blood of patriots running through her veins, she trains as a sniper, disguising herself as a man to work with the guerrilla army fighting the invaders. Even when questions are raised over the righteousness of the country she is risking her life to protect, her resolve doesn’t waver. Even when love threatens to distract her, she remains focused on the greater goal. Go Ae-shin is a powerful reminder that no matter who we are, regardless of our gender or social standing, we can find it in ourselves to stand up and fight for what is righteous, for the sake of our fellow countrymen.
Kim Bok-joo (Lee Sung-kyung) of Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo (2016)
Kim Bok-joo—still one of Lee Sung-kyung's best roles—is a college weightlifter who goes through the throes of first love and has to balance the competing pulls of love, friendship, family, and athletic glory. Fully confident in her skills and in her body, her life falls into disarray when she falls in love with a weight loss doctor and she pretends to be a patient to catch his attention.
Even though the plot and her circumstance might not be the typical setting of a badass female character, the way she never internalizes the traditional standards of beauty is something quite refreshing in a young female character. Her identity crisis in the show is never about her weight or how she looks; her stepping away from weightlifting was not even about a guy. Her identity crisis is about her identity as an athlete and what it means to lose your passion for something you’ve sacrificed everything for.
The male lead in the story (Nam Joo-hyuk) is more of a supporting role who is there for her, yet he is not central to her crisis resolution. She handles her crisis on her own terms and heals herself with the help of family and friends. This is a damsel in (existential) distress more than capable of saving herself.