After a meeting with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol yesterday, Netflix announced it’s planning to invest $2.5 billion into “the creation of Korean series, films, and unscripted shows over the next four years” — which is a fancy way of saying Netflix is about to make a crapload of K-dramas.
The amount is double what Netflix has invested in K-dramas since 2016 — and it’s no surprise given the monumental success of Squid Game as well as The Glory and Physical: 100. In a statement, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos said the company had “great confidence that the Korean creative industry will continue to tell great stories,” noting that Korean entertainment was “now at the heart of the global cultural zeitgeist.”
As a second-generation Korean American, this feels weird. Cool! But also extremely weird.
For most of my childhood, K-dramas were something I watched with my parents on “the Korean channel” on our boxy CRT. I barely remember half the shows — there was one with an old bald king who dressed in gold and had a snazzy eye patch — but I do remember how kids at school bullied me over the gimbap my mom packed in my lunchbox. The same kids also teased me for listening to K-pop artists like HOT and Baby VOX. So the recent shift in the cultural zeitgeist Sarandos refers to? The one where BTS and Blackpink are popular, Korean skincare floods TikTok, and Parasite wins an Oscar? The one responsible for the emergence of terms like koreaboo?
I wish I could show this to my younger self. How the culture I liked in secret, the one I shoved into the darkest corners of my brain when with my American American friends, would one day be at the heart of the global cultural zeitgeist. At the same time, there’s a part of me that’s irrationally frustrated and annoyed at how easy it’s all become — and how alone I still feel even though more non-Asian friends message me about their latest K-drama addiction than at any other point in my life.
In ye olden days, I used to have to go to a dingy mall basement in Flushing, New York, and rent bootleg DVDs from a dodgy grandpa. I’d watch episodes of a drama while visiting family on summer vacations. When I came back home, I’d have to scour the internet for episodes cut into a million parts in potato-quality resolution just to find out what happened. My first lesson in region-locked content was when I foolishly bought DVDs over the summer only to find they wouldn’t play in my American DVD player. Now, I can just open Netflix, and there are so many K-dramas, I don’t know where to start. And they’re even decently subtitled in English so anyone can watch, even if they lose some of the finer nuances. (See: the gganbu translation debacle in Squid Game.)
Now, I can just open Netflix, and there are so many K-dramas, I don’t know where to start
But the frustrating part of all this is how Netflix becomes, in a way, the arbiter of how the average American sees K-dramas. Yes, Squid Game was so popular it got a second season. Yes, it’s shockingly impressive that Netflix got Extraordinary Attorney Woo so quickly. (I used to wait months to get my hands on a reliable stream for an entire series.) But when my family and friends told me about Goblin (also known as Guardian: The Lonely and Great God), one of the most popular K-dramas of all time, starring Squid Game’s Gong Yoo, it was nowhere to be found on Netflix. When Bad Prosecutor came out this past fall, starring my current idol crush Do Kyung-soo, it was likewise missing in action.
It’s not the worst thing. It’s why I have a Rakuten Viki subscription. But it does kind of eat into something Sarandos said in his statement. “It is incredible that the love toward Korean shows has led to a wider interest in Korea, thanks to the Korean creators’ compelling stories.”
Friends will ask what Bong Joon-ho films they should watch after Parasite, and the only one they consistently watch is Okja because that’s the one on Netflix. I can recommend Memories of Murder all I like, but I know most of my friends will nod and never bother because Netflix doesn’t have it. I can say that I loved Squid Game’s Lee Byung-hun in Joint Security Area — which also stars Song Kang-ho from Parasite and was directed by Oldboy’s Park Chan-wook — but it’s not on Netflix. I, personally, want to watch My Annoying Brother, and even though it’s available on Netflix in other countries, it’s not here, and it’s not on Rakuten Viki. I could pay $3.99 to rent it, but then again, who would I be able to even talk to about it now that my parents are gone?
This isn’t really Netflix’s fault. Region locking is just a crappy holdover from the DVD era. Plus, I don’t blame my friends for not wanting to go out of their way for foreign entertainment when there’s so much content in general. Netflix actually has a pretty impressive selection of Korean films and TV shows. With this $2.5 billion investment, I’m sure it’s only going to get better. And it’s not just Netflix. The platform’s success in this arena has led to Hulu, Disney, and Apple including K-dramas on their streaming platforms as well.
Overall, this is a good thing. But sometimes progress is bittersweet, too. As happy as I am that K-drama is having its moment in America, I can’t help but dwell on how hard it can be to hold onto the culture your immigrant parents gave you. Then and now.