Korean television actors are insanely popular around the world. Their fan following has only grown over the years with the steadily expanding audience of Korean shows, which is also known as K-drama. And this has, in turn, helped increase the worth of several K-drama stars, making them the highest-paid actors in the industry.
Many K-dramas are now among the most watched content in the world. Take for instance Netflix’s Squid Game, which set unprecedented streaming records for the platform. And it is just one example. In fact, millions around the world are hooked to Korean shows — binge-watching one drama after the other.
Actors making more money as K-drama surges in popularity
The extraordinary success of Korean shows has resulted in the emergence of some of the biggest names in entertainment. The actors are not restricted to television alone; they leave their mark in widely successful films, too.
Of course, with an ever growing market it is obvious that the actors headlining the shows are raking in millions. However, how much do they make per episode? That’s a question on everyone’s minds.
So, from Kim Soo-hyun to Song Hye-kyo and Lee Jung-jae to Hyun Bin, take a look at some of the highest paid K-drama actors in television.
Winner of two Grand Bell Awards — South Korea’s equivalent of the Academy Awards, Kim Soo-hyun is one of the biggest names in the world of Korean drama.
In 2021, he starred in One Ordinary Day, the Korean remake of the acclaimed BBC series Criminal Justice. He was paid around USD 423,000 per episode for the hit show, making him the highest-paid K-drama actor.
Kim began his career with the Korean drama Kimchi Cheese Smile in 2007 and gained commercial as well as critical success with shows like Dream High (2011-12), Moon Embracing the Sun (2012), My Love from the Star (2013-14) as well as films such as The Thieves (2012) and Secretly, Greatly (2013).
After completing his mandatory military service, Kim made cameo appearances in hit dramas Hotel del Luna (2019) and Crash Landing on You (2020) before charming all with his splendid performance in the well-received It’s Okay to Not Be Okay (2020), for which he was reportedly paid around USD 155,000 per episode.
Though more renowned as a movie star, Lee shot to international stardom in 2021 with Netflix’s Squid Game. The incredible popularity of the show, and his performance made him the first Korean to win the respective best actor awards at the Critics Choice, Screen Actors Guild Awards and Primetime Emmy Awards.
Lee was reportedly paid USD 248,000 per episode for the nine-episode drama. He is set to reprise his role in the second season of the series, which has been confirmed by Netflix. The phenomenal success of the first season has guaranteed that Lee is going to earn more in the second.
Even without Squid Game, Lee would still be one of the greatest actors in Korean entertainment industry. His films have almost consistently recorded commercial success and he has won numerous honours over a three-decade long career for his memorable performances in films.
Among his best known movies are Il Mare (2000), Over the Rainbow (2002), New World (2013), The Face Reader (2013) and Deliver Us from Evil (2020). In 2022, he made his directorial debut with the film Hunt, in which he co-starred with Jung Woo-sung.
In just over a decade, the South Korean actor has become the toast of K-drama fans around the world. He is internationally renowned for playing a South Korean special forces soldier in the highly successful Descendants of the Sun (2016).
Recently, he tasted critical and commercial success with Netflix’s Vincenzo (2021). The same year, he wowed critics with the epic sci-fi Netflix film, Space Sweepers.
Phenomenally popular among people of all ages because of his performances, good looks and clean image in real life, Song was reportedly paid around USD 170,000 per episode for Vincenzo, making him one of the highest-paid Korean actors.
Some of his other famous dramas and films include Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010), A Werewolf Boy (2012) and The Battleship Island (2017) and Arthdal Chronicles (2019). He wrapped filming for his next movie, Bogotá, in late 2021 and appeared as the lead character in the critically acclaimed K-drama Reborn Rich in late 2022.
Song is one of the most celebrated female Korean actors of her generation and among the highest-paid Korean drama actors.
An ageless beauty, she is best known for playing the lead opposite Song Joong-ki in Descendants of the Sun (2016).
In 2021, she appeared in the drama Now, We Are Breaking Up. According to Hankook Ilbo, the sister paper of The Korea Times, she was paid somewhere around USD 160,000 per episode, making her the joint highest earning television actress in her country with Jun Ji-hyun.
Song has been winning laurels for her performances on television since the 1990s. Among her notable appearances are Autumn in My Heart (2000), Full House (2004), That Winter, the Wind Blows (2013) and Encounter (2018-19).
She is also remarkably famous in China and has appeared in acclaimed movies such as Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (2013) and John Woo’s two-part epic film The Crossing (2014 and 2015).
Apart from her acting career, Song is also the face of luxury fashion brands such as Bottega Veneta. In 2021, Korean entertainment show TMI News estimated that her charges for product endorsements and sponsored Instagram posts hover around USD 760,000 and USD 460,000, respectively.
Jun, who is popularly known as Gianna Jun, is one of the biggest stars in Korean entertainment.
International audiences saw her most recently as the gritty Ashin in Kingdom: Ashin of the North (2020-21), the sidequel to the acclaimed Netflix horror-thriller Kingdom (2019–).
Jun, the first Korean ambassador of luxury fashion label Alexander McQueen, is widely credited for putting Korean entertainment on the world map with the classic romantic film My Sassy Girl (2001), for which she earned her first Grand Bell Award for Best Actress.
She garnered immense fame with Il Mare (2000), The Thieves (2012), The Berlin File (2013) and Assassination (2015). For Daisy (2006), she won her second Grand Bell Award for Best Actress.
Though her first appearance on the small screen was in 1999, Jun did not appear in a TV series until the popular drama My Love from Another Star (2013-14). She followed it up with Legend of the Blue Sea (2016-17).
In 2021, she played the role of a national park ranger in the show Jirisan. As per a report by Hankook Ilbo Jun made around USD 160,000 per episode for the show.
Lee is one of the most successful actors in the Korean entertainment scene. In 2021, she played the role of a cop-turned-insurance investigator who is drawn into a murder case. The 12-episode K-drama reportedly earned her somewhere around the fees charged by Song Hye-kyo and Jun Ji-hyun per episode, which is around USD 160,000 per episode.
But more remarkable is the fact that Lee is one of the richest stars by net worth among Korean celebrities, despite the fact that she took a long break from acting for around 12 years.
Lee has been internationally famous since the early years of her career with renowned films such as Joint Security Area (2000), One Fine Spring Day (2001) and Park Chan-wook’s acclaimed thriller Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), for which she won a Grand Bell Award and a Blue Dragon Film Award among other accolades.
Her 2003 drama Jewel in the Palace is considered the show that triggered interest in Korean dramas across Asia.
One of the highest-paid Korean actors, Hyun Bin is counted among the best performers of his generation. No wonder Crash Landing on You (2019-20), in which he played the leading role, is one of the highest-rated Korean dramas in South Korean cable television history.
From playing small roles in his early career, Hyun shot to fame with the 2005 romantic-comedy drama My Lovely Sam-Soon (also known as My Name Is Kim Sam-soon). Two of his other acclaimed K-dramas include Secret Garden (2010-11) and Memories of the Alhambra (2018-19).
So how much does the 38-year-old earn? According to estimates, he commands upwards of USD 113,000 per episode. This is indeed a rapid rise from the USD 27,000 per episode he earned for Secret Garden.
Hyun Bin, who is married to his Crash Landing on You co-star Son Ye-jin, has also established his name as a major star in the Korean entertainment industry, with hits such as A Millionaire’s First Love (2006), Late Autumn (2010), Confidential Assignment (2017) and its sequel Confidential Assignment 2: International (2022).
In fact, Confidential Assignment 2: International is the third-highest-grossing film at the Korean box office with a gross of over USD 53 million.
After setting a ratings record with the drama Sandglass (1995), Go Hyun-jung, a former Miss Korea runner-up, quit acting to marry into a rich business family. Following a messy divorce, she came out of retirement in 2003 and quickly climbed to the top of Korean entertainment.
Her most notable works after resuming her acting career include dramas Queen Seondeok (2009) and Daemul (2010).
In 2021, Go starred in Reflection of You alongside actress Shin Hyun-bin. She is believed to have been paid around USD 85,000 per episode for the 16-episode series.
Playing the lead role of Gu Jun-pyo, a young chaebol heir, in the Korean drama Boys Over Flowers (2009), Lee Min-ho became a heartthrob of millions across Asia.
The South Korean actor is one of the most notable contributors to the cementing of the Hallyu wave, or Korean cultural wave, around the world. With over 31 million followers (as of 6 December 2022), Lee is the most followed Korean actor on Instagram.
His best-known Korean dramas include City Hunter (2011), Faith (2012), The Heir (2013), Legend of the Blue Sea (2016) and The King: Eternal Monarch (2020). Lee’s film appearances are scarce, but he won the Grand Bell Award for Best New Actor for his excellent portrayal of a rising gangster in 1970s South Korea in Gangnam Blues (2015).
In 2022, he made waves internationally for his leading role in the Apple TV+ web series Pachinko, which is based on the novel of the same name by acclaimed Korean-American novelist Min Jin Lee.
Before the release of Pachinko, Lee’s per-episode salary was reportedly around USD 80,000. It is not clear how much he was paid for the Apple TV+ series, which, as per a 2018 report by The Hollywood Reporter, had a budget as high as that of Netflix’s The Crown (2016–) — one of the most expensive TV shows in history.
(Main image: songjoongki official/@hi_songjoongki/Instagram; Featured image: Song hyekyo/@kyo1122/Instagram)
This article first appeared on Lifestyle Asia Singapore.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Answer: Kim Soo-hyun, Song Hye-kyo, Song Joong-ki, Lee Jung-jae, Hyun Bin, Jun Ji-hyun, Lee Young-ae, Go Hyun-jung, and Lee Min-ho are the highest-paid Korean actors in television.
Answer: Among the most popular K-drama actors are Song Hye-kyo, Song Joong-ki and Lee Min-ho. Each of them are better known for their television appearances than big screen performances.
Answer: Kim Soo-hyun, Song Hye-kyo, Song Joong-ki, Jun Ji-hyun and Lee Min-ho would be counted among the richest K-drama actors when earnings from endorsements are also taken into account.