Have you seen Korean period dramas and wondered if there are ones that are based on real-life characters? Here are five historical dramas that draw inspiration from, if not reflect, events and personalities that really happened in Korea’s very colorful history:

Empress Ki

Initial TV run: a whopping 51 episodes from October 2013 to April 2014 on MBC

Cast: Ha Jiwon as Ki Seungnyang / Ki Nyang who later becomes the titular Empress Ki, Joo Jinmo as Wang Yoo / King Choonghye, Ji Changwook as Toghon Temür / Ta Hwan, and Baek Jinhee as Tanashiri, daughter of Yeon-Chul

What’s it about: Seungnyang (played by Ha Jiwon) was born a girl in a family of low-ranking palace officials. She did not have any affections towards the job of her parents, so to avoid being a palace maidservant, she disguised herself as a boy. As a man, she was assigned to watch over Yuan crown prince To Gon, who was exiled to Koryo (Korea) from the Yuan/Mongol empire. Eventually, Seungnyang secret was discovered, and she now has to help To Gon get back to his rightful place in the Yuan empire, which was taken from him by his half-brother who was the one responsible for his exile in Koryo.

In his return to Yuan, he employs Seungnyang’s assistance, who then posed as a royal maidservant. Together, they rose to the highest positions of power in Yuan, as To Gon later decides to marry Seungnyang. Seungyang becomes empress, but she still remembers her first love who she left in Koryo, Wang Yoo (played by Joo Jinmo).     

How is it related to real-life events: The events and characters of Empress Ki were based on real-life people. Seungnyang who was then 16 in the year 1331, was sent to Khanbaliq (what is now known as Beijing) from Koryo as part of a tribute to the Yuan empire that also included the return of the crown prince To Gon from exile.  With her tenacity and intelligence, she eventually became the first  Korean empress of the Yuan Dynasty and became the ruler of close to 60 million people who inhabited Mongol-controlled China at that time. 

The drama, although successful among Korean and Chinese television viewers, was criticized by Koreans as too sympathetic, as she was (and still is) seen as a traitor who chose to rise to power in the Yuan dynasty rather than in her native Koryo. On the other hand, Ming Dynasty historians did not look favorably upon her reign as she was considered a corrupting influence. 

Finally, it should be noted that when her son, Biligtu Khan, succeeded his father (and in actuality, her, as Empress Ki did more of the ruling compared to her husband To Gon) to the throne when he died, Empress Ki actually faded and disappeared. There were no records of her in her twilight years when her son took over as emperor of the Northern Yuan dynasty. 

Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth

Initial TV run: 20 episodes plus four specials from December 2016 to February 2017 on KBS

Cast: Park Seojoon as Moomyung / Kim Sunwoo / Kim Isabu / Dog-bird, Go Ara as Kim Ahro, Park Hyungsik as Sammaekjong / Kim Jidwi / Jinheung of Silla, Shinee’s Choi Minho as Kim Sooho, and BTS’ V (Kim Taehyung) as Seok Hansung

What’s it about: This is a story set in the ancient Silla dynasty about a group of young men called Hwarang who lived 1,500 years ago and their passion, love, friendship. After the death of King Beopheung died, Jiso ruled the kingdom as regent while keeping her son Sammaekjong (played as an adult by Park Hyunsik) hidden outside of the capital to protect him from court intrigue and drama. As the years roll by, everybody is anticipating who shall replace Jiso. There’s Sammaekjong who’s now of age, and nobles, citizens, and officials who now want power for themselves. For fear of the restless nobility who want the throne to themselves, Jiso created a new called the Hwarang, that will protect the throne for Sammaekjong and ward off other interested parties. Leading the Hwarang is Moo Myung (played by Park Seojoon), a young man who despite not being a part of the nobility, became a legendary warrior.

Other members of the Hwarang are Kim Ahro (played by Reply 1994’s Go Ara), a half-breed with an aristocrat father and a peasant servant mother, who becomes the physician of the Hwarang and the love interest of Moomyung.

Kimsammaekjong secretly becomes a Hwarang warrior himself who vowed to eliminate the nobles making his quest for the throne difficult. Other Hwarang members include Kim Suho (SHINee’s Choi Minho) who became known to be flirtatious, Park Banryu (Do Jihan from Basketball) known as the cold-blooded Hwarang, Kim Yeowool (Jo Yoonwoo from Mask) who is described as the most charming Hwarang who doesn’t have designs for the throne despite having royal lineage, and Suk Hansung (BTS’ V aka Kim Taehyung) known as the maknae of the Hwarang warriors.

Bonus: BTS’s Kim Tae Hyung and Jin sang Hwarang’s OST Even if I Die, It’s You

How is it related to real-life events: In the history of the Silla dynasty, Hwarang actually existed. Known as Flowering Knights, they were an elite warrior group of male youth in Silla, They originally bonded to study arts and culture as well as religious teachings stemming mainly from Korean Buddhism. The youths who were chosen by the Silla Kingdom became the knights and warriors for the Silla Dynasty within the age of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. 


Initial TV run: 48 episodes running from February to April 2019 on SBS

Cast: Jung Ilwoo as Yi Geum / Prince Yeoning, Go Ara as Chun Yeoji, Kwon Yul as Bak Munsu, Park Hoon as Dalmoon, Lee Geungyoung as Min Jinwon, Jung Moonsung as Yi Tan / Prince Milpung, and Bae Junghwa as Chun Yoonyoung / Bokdan

What’s it about: Haechi is a legal drama set in the period of the Joseon Dynasty. At the beginning of the drama, Minister Min Jinwon (played by Lee Gyeungyoung) explains that justice and truth are unattainable, like that legendary animal. “In real life, it is impossible to judge right from evil.” For him, politics is not about justice, but about power. And when you lose power is tantamount to death.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, a group of people working in Saheonbu (practically the Office of the Inspector General that administered inspections in the capital Hanyang (now Seoul), and the periphery) who actually believes in true justice. With Head Inspector Han Jeongseok (played by Lee Pilmo), they start digging into a murder case that gets them in the crosshairs of the royal court. 

Enter Yi Geum (played by Jung Ilwoo), a good for nothing prince who accidentally gets himself involved in this crime-solving mystery. Although a prince, there are some people who look down on him as his mother was a maid, so he was seen as a low-born royal. He also wasn’t being taken seriously because he spends his days drinking and womanizing, which is a waste of his smarts. But then, because of the involvement of the royals in the murder, he needs to establish his position and slowly but surely flex his political muscle as a prince. While he doesn’t have any political capital at the start, he was joined by some friends and advisers, and soon he has people supporting him. 

While it can be argued that we already know the ending and that he will become king, his journey to the top is quite an exciting and thrilling ride that we as viewers can join. Alas, with the other officers in the Saheonbu on his side – Inspector Park Moonsoo (played by Kwon Yul), Assistant Inspector Yeoji (Go Ara), and ring leader of beggars Dalmoon (Park Hoon), among others, his rise to the top and their crusade for justice combined splendidly.


By the end of the drama, we also see the shift in the attitude of the Minister who opens the show. While he still believes true justice is unattainable, he was given more hope as he recalls his youth, when was also an idealistic dreamer

How is it related to real-life events: This drama is actually based on the real-life story of Yi Geum, who was later known as Prince Yeoning, during his early years of reign. He becomes King Yeongjo, the 21st king of Joseon in 1724 who reigned for 52 years. However, he would also be subject to a rather depressing episode of Joseon history in relation to his son, Prince Sado, who died of starvation after his father (yes, Prince Yeoning aka King Yeongjo) locked him up in a rice closet for seven days. This father-son tragedy was the subject of the 2015 movie The Throne which stars Song Kangho (Parasite) as King Yeongjo and Yoo Ahin (Chicago Typewriter, Burning, and the soon-to-be-released Hellbound) as Prince Sado. 

So now, you may ask, where does the drama’s title come from? Haechi is actually a Korean mythological creature whose likeness is found in front of the Saheonbu building. Haechi looks like a lion with scales and represents a righteous judge of justice and truth. Saheonbu, the Joseon office that is also responsible for carrying out investigations and justice, was meant to be like the righteous and honorable Haechi.

Dae Jang Geum

Initial TV run: 54 episodes that ran on MBC from September 2003 to March 2004

Cast: Lee Youngae as Seo Janggeum, Ji Jinhee as Min Jungho, Hong Rina as Choi Geumyoung, Im Ho as King Jungjong, and Yang Mikyung as Court Lady Han Baekyoung (Jang Geum’s teacher)

What’s it about: For international audiences, this drama is more known as Jewel in the Palace, while in Korea, the drama bears the name of its lead character. Set in 16th century Korea, the series is about Jang Geum whose mother was killed and whose father was arrested and disappeared (we’re not sure if he was killed or was put in exile until his death), when she was still not more than five years old. While his dad was arrested and exiled or killed or no one knows really, her mom came out of hiding to find out what happened to her husband, but alas, was hit by an arrow. Before she died, she told her daughter that her dying wish was for her (the daughter) to enter the palace and become the highest-ranking kitchen lady so that she can somehow avenge her from the palace personalities against whom she fought. 

Jang Geum eventually became successful in both entering the palace and getting a training spot as a court lady. This did not sit well with the other court ladies in training and even with the other palace staff, as she is not known for her strong family background. In fact, her parents are a mystery to the rest of the palace, which increased their suspicion and dislikes for our girl, while she obviously cannot divulge the identity of her parents because they still pretty much had unfavorable reputations, even in their death. 

Despite her innate intelligence and perseverance, she finds herself in trouble many times. The intrigues she was involved with, combined with her sketchy background, led her to be convicted of treason for which she was sent to Jeju Island to be exiled. There, she met a lady physician who taught her the tricks of her trade and gave her another way of getting back to the palace – by practicing medicine. So, even if she already built her culinary skills as a court lady, she also had to learn medicine from the lady so she can get back to the palace as a physician.  

So, does she get back to the palace and avenge her parents? You’ll have to watch the drama to find out!

How is it related to real-life events: The stories and characters are pretty much based on real life. Jang Geum was a real-life physician of the palace, and the title of the series Dae (meaning great) Jang Geum was also bestowed upon her because of her achievements. The first mention of her in the palace records was in the spring of 1515 when King Jungjong’s second wife, Queen Janggyeong, died from complications of childbirth. While court officers tried to convince the king to punish the medical women, including Jang Geum, for the queen’s demise, the king refused, saying, 

“Jang Geum deserves big credit for her role in the safe childbirth of palace ladies, but I have never awarded her for her actions until now, because of other affairs. Now you (the court officers) are telling me to punish her because the Queen is dead, but I won’t do that as well as I won’t reward her. That’s enough.”

Jang Geum’s position as the king’s physician continued until his death in November 1544. In the Yi dynasty Medical Officer’s Journal, she was also mentioned in this passage:

“Medical Lady Jang Geum, whose origins cannot be traced, received the right to be called ‘Dae Jang Geum” under an edict issued by the 11th King of Korea, Jungjong, in the 18th year of his reign [1524-1525]. At that time, there was no precedent of a Medical Lady treating a King, but the Emperor trusted in Jang Geum’s method of treating illness with food. Jang Geum, with the granting of the right to use ‘Dae’ in her name, is certainly an epic lady whose name will be recorded in the history books.”

So, yes, by now we’ve spoiled the drama for you. She pretty much had an awesome career as a doctor and continues to be the only female physician in history to serve the highest officer of the land. Even now, the Korean president’s personal physician is male. But to know if Jang Geum’s family background was eventually exposed, that you will have to find out ion the drama. It seems that we didn’t spoil everything, after all!

Empress Myeongseong

Initial TV run: 124 episodes that ran from May 2001 to July 2002 on KBS

Cast: Lee Miyeon (episodes 1, 10-81) and Choi Myunggil as Empress Myeongseong, Lee Jinwoo as King Gojong, and Yoo Donggeun as Heungseon Daewongun

What’s it about: If you come across the song If I Leave being sung in singing contests and programs in Korea like Immortal Songs, Yesterday, and King of Masked Singer, then you may have had a brush with this historical drama. That OST was originally sung by world-renowned Korean soprano Jo Somi for the historical drama Empress Myeongsong. This is one historical drama that was so successful that decades after it was first shown, people still remember it, including the timeless theme song. It even had two actresses playing the same role – the titular Empress for its run that lasted a year and two months and 124 episodes!

The issue with the two actresses is not really a real issue as it just happened that the original actress was not ready for the eventual success of the show. The contract that the “original” Empress Myeongseong, Lee Miyeon, signed with KBS was only for 100 episodes. However, due to the success of the program, the TV station wanted to extend it to more than 100 episodes. However, Lee Miyeon wanted to adhere to the original contract, so she refused to do more than 100 episodes. Not to worry though, as the station just had to hire a new actress, Choi Myunggil, to play the empress from Episode 82 onwards. 

So, for K-drama fans who are used to a 16-episode show, be prepared for a very long ride. 

How is it related to real-life events: Although there may be some scenes where the show’s creators exercised some creative freedoms, the characters of the drama are based on real-life historical figures. There’s Empress Myeongseong, who was the wife of the country’s first Emperor, Gojong, and the 26th King of Joseon. Her presence was felt when the First Sino-Japanese War broke out and was a driving force in modernizing Korea. 

Empress Myeongseong was known for her liberal ways such as wanting girls to be educated and employing a modern army for the country. She was Korea’s first queen to rule the country—next to her husband—and was politically more active than the emperor. Due to her immense power and influence, the Empress’ rule did not sit well with foreigners, particularly the Japanese, who sent agents to assassinate her.

There are still more historical dramas that are actually based on real life. Even if you can’t relate to the traditions or you may not recognize your favorite actors because of the hair and make-up, get ready to be dazzled by the high production values! 

Featured Image: BTS’s V/Kim Tae Hyung as the ever loyal and innocent Hansung in Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth, along with lead actor and fellow Wooga Squad member Park Seo Joon. Photo: BANGTANTV/YouTube