Saranghae, Sidechick? Infidelity in K-dramas

Infidelity has been around for as long as couples have decided to remain monogamous. And it continues to plague modern-day couples. Its effects on the lives of men, women, children, and entire families have long been documented. While everyone agrees that it causes suffering on at least one person and on entire generations, the severity of the suffering and how society perceives those involved are largely influenced by culture. In this article, we take a look at k-dramas about infidelity.

While one can never completely understand the inner workings of a foreign culture from the outside, we can draw insight by using various lenses. Language, for example, provides one aspect. The term for the word “mistress” in Thai is mia noi, a combination of the terms "wife" (mia) and noi (minor, or little). So the mistress is a “little wife,” perhaps to connote that she functions somehow as the legal wife but does not have the same power or responsibility. In Filipino, the colloquial term for a mistress is “querida” (from the Spanish term that means "beloved"). It carries the weight not just of the literal meaning of the word but also the centuries-old Spanish colonialism in the country. A more modern term is “kabit” which has roots in the term for something connected to or attached.

Historically, monogamy in Korea was officially established in the Joseon dynasty (1392–1897). Of course, the wealthier class still kept concubines, but these women were not held in high esteem by the rest of society, and well-brought-up women would never consider such a life. While it was government policy that men and women remain monogamous, it was not necessarily followed by everyone. (Driving under the influence is illegal, but it hasn’t stopped people from doing so.) Concubinage continued well until the 20th century. In the 1920s, because of societal changes, the Korean term for “concubine” was replaced by the more socially acceptable term “second wife.”


Interestingly, the word for to be unfaithful in Korea is barampida, which is closely related to the word baram (wind). Is it the unpredictability or instability of the wind that is referred to? Is it a euphemism for someone unable to keep promises? Non-native speakers can only conjecture at this point. Fun fact though, because of the word association, fans and air-conditioners are considered taboo wedding gifts!


K-dramas, too, although not definitively, provide us some insight into how spouses, adulterers, and homewreckers co-exist in the stressful and life-changing phenomenon of adultery in a very specific context. They have explored infidelity from many angles and from many perspectives: the abandoned wife, the befuddled husband, the traumatized child, and even from the point of view of the couple’s friends, in-laws, and work colleagues. And with the high ratings these shows seem to rake in every single time, there’s no stopping the k-drama machine from churning more and more shows about infidelity in the years to come.

Mistress (2018)

With a title like “Mistress,” there’s little doubt on what the show could be about. A remake of the BBC production Mistresses, Mistress shows the rather scandalous lives of four working women in Seoul, their steamy affairs (yes, it’s steamier than the average k-drama), and the murder that complicates everything.


Available on other sites

The World of the Married (2020)

The runaway hit of 2020, The World of the Married is about the beginning, the complicated middle, and the tragic end of an affair. Also based on a BBC drama (Dr. Foster), this k-drama version is headlined by acting powerhouse Kim Hee-ae. Her incredible performance won her a Baeksang and helped make the show the highest-rated drama in Korean cable TV history.


Available on Netflix

Love Feat. Marriage and Divorce (2021)

The first season of this infidelity-centered melodrama was such a ratings hit for TV Chosun that a second season was immediately commissioned and is currently airing on Netflix. The show tackles the turbulent lives of three married women who work on a radio show and how they handle the consequences of their spouses’ adultery.


Available on Netflix

On the Way to the Airport (2016)

This melodrama offers a more complicated twist to a common theme: What if both parties involved in an affair are actually married to other people? Slow-burning and quite reflective, On the Way to the Airport is a slice-of-life drama that comments on the transient nature of relationships, the hard choices we must make, and how to navigate the fine line between what the heart wants and the obligations it needs to keep.


Available on other sites

The Hymn of Death (2019)

In this 3-episode series, a celebrated (and married) playwright falls in love with a famous soprano during the Japanese occupation of Korea. But beyond the theme of forbidden love lies an examination of loyalties, various commentary on the turbulent political situation of the 1920s, and a reflection on why people find refuge in people they most need to stay away from.


Available on Netflix

Secret Affair (2014)

This is another infidelity drama from The World of the Married's Kim Hee-ae, but this time with a bit more scandal: Not only is the main character a married woman having an affair, but she is having it with a much younger man, who also happens to be her student. The multiple taboos tackled by this k-drama won Baeksang awards for both its director and screenwriter, as well as nominations for both its leads.


Available on Netflix

VIP (2019)

Combine the glamorous world of particular VIP clientele with the unsettling news of an affair, and you have a k-drama that tackles the repercussions of infidelity….but in high style. Jang Na-ra as the lead breaks away from the sweet and wholesome roles she is often known for and takes on the challenge of portraying a bereaved wife who needs to come to terms with the lies her husband has left behind.


Available on Netflix

Cheat on Me If You Can (2020)

Cho Yeo-jeong of Parasite fame returns to the small screen as a best-selling crime novelist obsessed with the many ways of killing a person. She gives her husband an ultimatum — “If you cheat, you die” — but does she actually know he is a serial cheater? And would she really do good on her ultimatum if she finds him out?


Available on Viu

My Wife Is Having an Affair This Week / Listen to Love (2017)

If My Ahjussi left you a sizable Lee Sun-kyun-shaped hole that only the esteemed actor can fill, then hop over to Listen to Love. Here, he plays a husband who discovers that his wife is having an affair. The drama is a remake of Japan’s 2007 Konsu Tsuma ga Uwaki Shimasu. It is about a husband who is rendered so helpless at the knowledge of his wife’s affair that he turns to the wisdom of people he meets online.

Available on other sites

Misty (2018)

Many k-dramas focus on women finding that their husbands are having affairs. But what if the script was flipped? Misty is about an ambitious woman (Kim Nam-joo) who has an affair with a renowned athlete but whose current situation demands that she reconnect with her estranged husband. But Misty goes well beyond the dynamics of an affair, devoting ample time to showing the difficulties faced by working women in Korea every day, such as misogyny, unfair labor demands, and the insidious workings of the “old boy’s club” in certain fields.


Available on Netflix

The Lady in Dignity (2017)

Though not the main storyline, infidelity abounds in the high society drama The Lady in Dignity. When Woo A-jin (Kim Hee-sun) confronts her husband (comedian Jung Sang-hoon) about his affair, he offers a non-solution that is beyond insane: can't he have them both? This utterly absurd polyamorous side-story actually provides comic relief to an otherwise suspenseful murder mystery about the internal power struggle in a wealthy family.


Available on Netflix

Although completely engrossing for its viewers, k-dramas that deal with infidelity are cautionary tales for anyone who wishes to engage in an extra-marital affair. After all, if there's one message these k-dramas often emphasize, it is that those who play with fire get burned, and often even burn down the whole house with them.


Sources:

Infidelity, the Querida System in the Philippines

Second Wife (Korea)

Wedding Taboos Turned into Marketing Ploys (Korea)

If you enjoyed reading this article, you might enjoy the following from the Saranghae Series:

Love and Amnesia in K-dramas

The K-drama Confession

Searching for Soulmates

Alcohol and K-drama

Fate in Fantasy K-dramas

Shakespeare in K-dramaland

K-drama Medical Characters We Love

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