Korean Dramas as Spiritual Soul Therapy
Our modern problem is not that we are too romantic, but that we are not romantic enough.
Our longing for love and romance tell us something essential about ourselves and the nature of reality. It is a backhanded proof that we were made for this. In spite of our cynicism that these longings are only the addled aspirations of romantic unstable naiveté, for those most open to others the longing remains. We even prize the gut-wrenching experience of “being in love” over the actual complexity of maintaining love. In loves most acute form, it is an emotion that borders pain and is often watered with tears. Before we get overly adult, male, and shutdown, we should first honor this romantic sensibility. Our Puritan heritage has besmirched the need for eros in our lives. Our Enlightenment biases have replaced the heart with the head. This is to our loss. We need to rekindle an affective theology, to embrace heaven over hell. 1 C.S. Lewis warns,
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will all change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell. 2
So, if keeping one’s heart open to the longing for love and romance is a spiritual benefit and if our modern world discounts or distorts this longing, then we should look for ways to rekindle these suppressed emotions. Those who are academically inclined might start by reading Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy or Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections. For the rest of us, we might start with Hallmark Christmas movies or better yet acquaint ourselves with Korean dramas. It is always better to experience romance affectively through story than read about it abstractly in a book. It is better to actually cry at the end of a moving television episode or romance novel.
Korean dramas, or “K-dramas” as they are called, are television series in the Korean language made in South Korea. They are a part of the global media phenomena of hallyu, which is a Chinese term that literally means “Korean Wave.” Since the turn of the 21st century, South Korea has emerged as a major exporter of popular culture. It is a conscious strategy of the Korean government’s assertion of soft power. It aims at becoming one of the world’s leading exporters of culture along with Japan and Britain, a position that the United States has dominated for nearly a century. This is a pretty ambitious global goal for a country the size of Indiana. Hallyu has propelled Korea and caused it to reign in East Asian nations. To many Americans, globalization may mean Americanization but, in China, globalization is Koreanization. In 2014, the South Korean government allocated one percent of its annual budget to their cultural industries and it raised $1 billion to fund popular culture. This effort has been heightened by the development of social networking services and online video sharing platforms, which have allowed Korean entertainment to reach a sizable overseas audience. In November 2008, Netflix began offering several Korean dramas as part of its video selection.
K-dramas are Hallmark romance films on steroids. They are more intense, more emotional, and more traditional. Consider two scenes from Jane Austen-based novels turned into films, the 1995 film Sense and Sensibility and the 2005 film Pride and Prejudice. First is the scene where Elinor Dashwood (played by Emma Thompson) realizes that her love interest, Edward Ferrars, is not married as she thought and burst into tears. The second scene from Pride and Prejudice is when Mr. Darcy walks across the moor toward Elizabeth Bennet at the end of the film to ask for her hand in marriage. Both of these scenes are emotional high points in the drama—gut-wrenching for the involved viewer. If one were to take the emotions elicited by these two scenes, stir and compound them by ten, one is just approaching the typical emotional arc of K-dramas. At their best this is achieved without becoming maudlin.
This is not to say that there are not a lot of tears. The ability to cry on cue and express emotion on one’s face is a given for K-drama actors. But there are two other reasons for this.
First is that K-dramas are steeped in a tragic sensibility. Certainly, they portray a highly idealized vision of Korean culture, but the mise en scène of a K-drama story is the pervasive expectation of tragedy. This expectation is what is largely missing from Hallmark romances.
South Korea has often been compared to Ireland. There are some superficial similarities, though most Koreans bristle at the comparison as it discounts the central role of Confucianism in Korean culture. But what Daniel Patrick Moynihan said of the Irish is also true of Koreans, “To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.” The Irish poet Yeats adds, “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”
Like the Irish, Koreans have a long history of tragedy and oppression that is now part of their psychological habitus. Caught between the invading forces of Japan and China, Korea is sometimes referred to as the “sore thumb of Asia.” Woven into the Korean psyche is the emotion described in Korean as han. There is no adequate English translation of the term. It emerged out of the experience of Japanese occupation and was coined by Japanese art critic Yanagi Soetsu. He called it the “beauty of sorrow.” Others describe it as “a sadness, a sadness so deep no tears will come. And yet, still, there is hope.” Having been derived from a Japanese theorist, it is not a term without scholarly controversy in Korea. Yet for all the criticism of the theory, Yanagi Soetsu was awarded the Bogwan Order of Cultural Merit in 1984, the first to be awarded to a non-Korean. Han gives K-dramas central characters a kind of grit and tenacity as seen in the series Romance is a Bonus Book. In these stories, tragedy is layered on tragedy, making unrequited love the norm, and loss the expectation. This same sensibility is captured in Emily Dickenson’s poem, “Success is Counted Sweetest,” where defeat makes victory a heightened, if now unattainable, longing.
Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of victory
As he defeated—dying—
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear! 3
My wife counsels never trust anyone who doesn’t walk with a limp. Look for those with a tragic sense of life, who embrace life with a conscious awareness of brokenness, like one might find at a typical A.A. meeting. It is this tragic longing for love in the midst of loss that makes the pathos of K-dramas so powerful. Where else would one find a love story set in a hospice as is the case with the current K-drama series, Chocolate. American Hallmark films lack han.
A second feature of K-dramas is their overwhelming traditionalism. When moderns use the word eros, they immediately go to the sexual, and in most film this means explicit depictions. For most of Western history prior to Freud, sex was understood as a sublimate mystical yearning for and connection with God and not the other way around. K-dramas maintain this earlier sensibility, because of their overlay of Confucian values. They are erotic without being sexual.
Korea is both very modern and very traditional. The Internet speeds in Korea are twice as fast as in the United States. Social media and online gaming are much more prevalent in Korean society than in the US. Their educational and technical abilities are among the best in the world. The technical production value and acting chops of these K-drama television shows are on par with the best filmmaking in the world.
At the same time, Korea is steeped in tradition and places great value on it. Respect for elders, filial piety, family-orientedness, and a display of perceived “Asian moral values” play a critical role in these Korean dramas. K-dramas have much of the traditional relational restraint that one sees in Jane Austen’s novels. It is this prolonged restraint that serves to heighten the sense of longing and the emotional tension in these stories.
One recalls that in Lewis’ inaugural address at Cambridge University, he observes, “Between Jane Austen and us comes the birth of the machines…. This is parallel to the great changes by which we divide pre-history. This is on a level with the change from stone to bronze, or from a pastoral to an agricultural economy. It alters Man’s place in nature…. I conclude that it is really the greatest change in the history of Western Man.” 4 With traditional Confucianism as a stand in for Jane Austen, K-dramas explore the impact of modernity on ancient tradition.
Essential in understanding these dramas is some appreciation of Confucianism. The teachings of Confucius (551-479 BC) were never intended to be a religion. It has no sacred writings, no priesthood, and no doctrine of the afterlife. However, it did establish the parameters for social relationships and social decorum. Confucianism is family-centric and aggressively hierarchical. There are five basic relationships to be respected in the following order: king-subject, father-son, husband-wife, elder-younger, and friend-friend. Traditionally, cultures and countries in the Chinese cultural sphere were all strongly influenced by Confucianism. In practice this means that age matters as elders are respected (including ancestor worship), social standing matters including one’s class or where one is from, and indirection matters because of the danger of causing someone to “lose face.”
These Confucian dynamics are especially important in Korea as these hierarchical relationships are woven into the very structure of the language. It is not uncommon in Korea for a stranger to ask, “What is your age?” This is because they do not know how to talk to you without knowing first your social standing and whether you are elder to them. The ending of every sentence reflects these five basic relationships. One can put someone down just by changing the endings of the sentence—literally “talking down” to them. Now it is certainly true that modernity has challenged the rigidity of these hierarchies. Much of the humor in these K-dramas plays on this.
For example, in the drama Crash Landing on You, a very wealthy and modern businessman in Seoul complains to his wife to say what she means rather than continue to play the game of constant verbal indirection. In doing so, it indicates how his thinking has been influenced by the West. A further contrast in the impact of modernity is seen when the K-drama storylines takes one into North Korea and the contrast between the North Korea and the South Korea become central. (Watching a K-drama in North Korea is punishable by death.) It is also explored when the storyline contrasts modern storylines with ancient history as in Live Up to Your Name, which contrast a modern medical doctor with an ancient Korean traditional acupuncturist of the Joseon Dynasty. This is also shown through nostalgia for older rural life. In Crash Landing on You, a wealthy South Korean businesswoman learns from her North Korean captors the values of rural simplicity—most often reflected in food. In every case, the tradition of Confucian social decorum is respected making these very conservative dramas.
So, the contrasting tension between modernity and traditional Confucian society played out relationally, sets up the humor and dramatic tension in these stories. In almost every story there is a comic figure whose role is to expose the cultural taboos—that is, to say what everyone is thinking but would never dare to say aloud by strict cultural protocol.
Almost 90 percent of the scriptwriters for K-dramas are women, which is significant in a male-dominated industry and a largely misogynistic society. This is interesting because the ancient ways are decidedly less sympathetic to women and the female protagonists almost always start as modern breakers of Confucian protocol or feminists only to find their way back to the traditional norm by the conclusion of the story. It is this conservative bias that has given these dramas their broad appeal across Asia today.
I am certainly not an expert on K-dramas, but I have immersed myself into two series available on Netflix: Crash Landing on You and Chocolate. Earlier K-dramas tend to be set in the ancient historical setting of Korea (sageukor historical dramas), which was characterized by warring dynastic city-states. Live Up to Your Name is a fusion sageuk, blending through fantasy the ancient and the modern. Among the most successful of these sageuk dramas is Dae Jang Geum (Jewel in the Palace) (2003). It was sold to 91 different countries. Starring Lee Young-ae in the title role, it tells the tale of an orphaned kitchen cook who became the king’s first female physician. In a time when women held little influence in society, the young apprentice cook, Jang-geum, strives to learn the secrets of Korean cooking and traditional Korean medicine to cure the king of his various ailments. It is based on the true story of Jang-geum, the first female royal physician of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897).
Other notable K-drama series include:
Winter Sonata (2002)
Stairway to Heaven (2003-4)
49 Days (2011)
My Love from the Stars (2014).
Winter Sonata is considered to be the series that launched the Korean Wave throughout Asia and worldwide. Among the values in watching these dramas is learning the social dynamics of another culture. One can learn a lot about how the Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese view North Korea through films like Steel Rain (2017). In this film, a coup in North Korea forces a North Korean agent to defect to South Korea with an unconscious “Number One.” While agents from the North hunt for them, the defected North Korean agent has to work with the South Koreans to stop a nuclear war. It was actually this military action film that first got me watching Korean subtitled television dramas.
With North Korea in the nightly news, these dramas provide Western observers insights into the Korean mind. While the viewpoint is decidedly from a South Korean perspective, one finds that the geo-political reality is viewed very differently than through the lens of latent American imperialism. While these dramas are romanticized versions of reality that have all been given the “Hollywood touch,” there is much that can be learned from them short of visiting the countries themselves.
Let me conclude by commenting on the two series with which I am currently engaged. Both are ongoing and unfolding week-to-week.
The series Crash Landing on You is about a wealthy South Korean heiress of a Korean conglomerate who has a paragliding accident that takes her into North Korea. She literally falls into the arms of a high-ranking North Korean officer who is serving his mandatory 10 years of compulsory military service. Prior to his service, he was a concert pianist who studied in Switzerland. Yoon Se-ri, the heiress, is spoiled, demanding, and fairly Westernized. She is also the oldest and favorite bastard child of the father, which puts her in great tension with her other siblings and stepmother. The North Korean officer, Ri Jung-Hyuk, tries to protect her and find a way to return her to South Korea without gaining the attention of the State Security Service, in effect the DPRK’s KGB. Gradually they fall in love and this ill-fated romance places the traditional Romeo and Juliet story in the midst of contrasting cultures and geo-political intrigue. It has a historical parallel in the ancient Korean folk tale of Ch’unhyang, another story of ill-conceived love, a similarity that is reference in the script as an ominous warning.
Crash Landing on You keeps the emotion tensions at bay for the viewer through a storyline that emphasize cross-cultural humor and life-and-death political intrigue. In this sense it is more than just a romance. Se-ri’s difficulty in getting out of the country is only matched by her inability to come to terms with her feelings for Captain Ri. Will she go or will she stay? Will she be able to voice her feelings for Captain Ri? And against this personal struggle is the question of whether the State Security Service will find her out before she has made up her mind on the other questions? What is certain is that the experience of being immersed with a group of North Korean soldiers and their rural lifestyle has profoundly changed her for the better—that is more traditional.
The film’s depiction of North Korea is highly idealized. The reality is much closer to Auschwitz than what is shown. The actual reality is dirtier, smellier, and poorer than what is depicted here. But the existing contrasts between the two Koreas makes for entertaining television.
The series Chocolate is the story of a Korean man who became a neurosurgeon though he dreamt of becoming a chef, and a woman who became a chef because of him. Central to this story is the emotional impact of Korean cuisine in all of its sensory and aesthetic glory. Entire episodes turn on the significance of Korean black bean sauce noodles (jajangmyeon) and Kimchi soup (kimchi jigae). This series took a little longer to grip me as it didn’t have the North Korean military intrigue of Steel Rain or Crash Landing on You, but this series is K-drama in its purist form. Set in a hospice among the terminally ill, this is a love story that calls one to reflect on what is genuinely important in life and death. Pathos, tragedy layered upon tragedy, death, tears, and unacknowledged and unrequited love fill this drama. All the while it makes one hungry for Korean food. This series is about as tactile and sensory and affective as television can get.
Western audiences may be put off by the extreme emotional outbursts or the cheesy pop songs that summarize each episode. Expressions of extreme emotion are common in Korea, as illustrated by professional mourners at funerals. This is depicted in Crash Landing on You and is culturally a mark of social standing and status. What seems odd to buttoned up Westerners—professional wailers—was actually a common biblical practice. “Therefore thus says the Lord, the Lord God Almighty, says, ‘There will be wailing in all the streets, and cries of anguish in every public square. The farmers will be summoned to weep and the mourners to wail’” (Amos 5:16). So, these displays of strong emotion are all part of the K-drama cake and my advice is to simply give oneself license to enter into the Korean wave. You will be better for it however odd it may seem at first.
It may seem like a stretch to suggest that K-dramas are a tonic for the withered and cynical Western soul. The Puritan in us wants to suppress emotion and desire. C.S. Lewis counters that we do not desire strongly enough, that we are “too easily pleased.” To grasp the full significance of grace, one must first have a broken heart. Protecting it from harm is a recipe for a truncated life, one that will never appreciate the risks and price of love.
I have a bias for all things Korean, as I grew up there. But I did not fully appreciate these aspects of Korean culture until now. There is a saying, attributed to Buddha, that goes: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” K-dramas are my teacher now. They are a needed leaven for a Type-A, Germanic, left-brained, male heart.
When I was a prep school rowing coach, several of my oarsmen later attended the U.S. Naval Academy. On a visit to the Academy, one of them said, “Coach, my roommates do not know how to connect. Their idea of connection is getting drunk and playing video games. How do I avoid becoming such a person?” I suggested he read Jane Austen and poetry. I would now add K-dramas.
This is not to suggest that every Korean male is a paragon of emotional connection. This is certainly not the case. K-dramas are an idealized vision of love and romance written largely by Korean women, who on the whole are treated pretty badly in Korean society.
But there is an ongoing legacy of Korean culture and Confucian traditionalism that has captured the modern imagination through K-dramas. It is decidedly not modern, regularly questioning the premises of modernity. Yet it very well may be more biblical in the same way that C.S. Lewis called us back to the value of pre-modern sensibilities of Jane Austen’s novels in “De Descriptione Temporum.”
So, it is not surprising to me that my father, the Korea missionary cancer surgeon, medical director, and violinist found great solace in these lines from English Victorian poet Robert Browning,
All we have willed or hoped or dreamed of good shall exist;
Not its semblance, but itself; no beauty, nor good, nor power
Whose voice has gone forth, but each survives for the melodist
When eternity affirms the conception of an hour.
The high that proved too high, the heroic for earth too hard,
The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky;
Are music sent up to heaven by the lover and the bard;
Enough that he heard it once: we shall hear it by and by. 5
The heightened longings for love and romance found in K-dramas are actually signposts of heaven. This is a path worth following.
Copyright © 2019 David John Seel
David John Seel, Jr., PhD (University of Maryland) is a cultural-renewal entrepreneur and social-impact consultant with expertise in the dynamics of cultural change. He lives with his wife on a historic farm in Pennsylvania.
For further reading: “Crash Landing on You: The defector who brought North-South Korean romance to life,” (February 22, 2020) BBC online (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-51526625)
- See Chris Armstrong’s “Getting Passionate,” Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians (Brazos, 2016), pp. 165-190.
- C.S. Lewis. The Four Loves, p. 170.
- Emily Dickinson, The Compete Poems of Emily Dickinson, p. 9.
- C.S. Lewis, “Concerning a Description of the Times.”
- Myra Reynolds. “Abt Vogler,” The Poems and Plays of Robert Browning, p. 251.