From North and South Korean star–crossed lovers to blind dating CEOs, K–Dramas have covered every single possible love/drama/murder/mystery scenario one could ever think up. They demand addictive engagement— an hour of entertainment packed within each episode. They contain multiple storylines, introducing a variety of couples and family nuances while retaining the trademark Korean humor—that careful balance between dry comebacks and over–the–top reactions. They invoke second lead syndrome (warning: don’t watch Reply 1988 unless you want a severe case of this), where the main character doesn’t end up with the person you were rooting for. In other words, they’re incredibly entertaining.
And what makes K–Dramas especially endearing—what makes me devote an entire week to curating a Notion page on my favorite ones—is the emotion embedded into each character, each line, and each song. This added emotional depth is what sets these dramas apart from most Western shows, which are usually centered around important plot points rather than audience–to–character connections. On–screen relationships and friendships are often much more nuanced; love is communicated through feelings rather than physical actions (especially with the lingering Asian taboo around sex), and grief is allowed to be constant.
This poignancy is most clearly illustrated through OSTs. OSTs, or original soundtracks, are the underlying heart to every drama. As soon as the song begins fading into a familiar scene—the two main leads holding hands, a slow onslaught of rain draping over them, the realization that maybe they’re in love—your heart starts to catch. OSTs are perfectly curated to their audience, their drama, and their scene, so much so that they become an essential part to the setting.
During this weird liminal space before your next internship, vacation, or school semester, where you’re just sitting on your couch picking through Netflix, I present the following OSTs and their respective K–Dramas: the perfect (dramatic) soundtrack to your summer.
When you happen on your summer fling:
Picture this: you’re in Sydney, Australia, taking an early–morning stroll at the beach, and you bump into a Park Bo–gum look alike just as the sun begins to rise. Or maybe you’re back in your hometown, buying yet another ceramic mug in the dollar section of Target, and your fingers brush with the stranger. It’s time for the summer romance we all deserve, one where this song can serve as the crooning backdrop to every late night date and every 4 a.m. obsessive thinking session. And if you can’t seem to find that summer someone, then live vicariously through Kim Mi–soo (played by Park Min–young) in What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim. As Lee Young–joon (Park Seo-joon) attempts to convince Kim Mi–soo to continue working as his secretary, this OST drifts in the background, capturing the revelation of love in all its irreconcilable depths.
For those late night drives with your best friend:
The first few notes of this song piques the nostalgia of childhood and friendship. This summer, it’s time to reconnect with your first loves: your best friends from high school, the neighbors you grew up with. Even if you don’t have the chance to go back home, don’t forget to take care of your inner child—and the people who took care of you. Reply 1988 has been my favorite K–Drama for three years running, and this OST never fails to make me call the best friend who recommended it (and who’s also still on my Netflix account). Set in 1988 in Korea, this drama takes you through the chaotic lives of five childhood friends, probing issues as deep as the military regime of the '80s or as light as having to get tutored by your older sister (SPOILER: who also ends up dating your first love). The whimsical use of the accordion accompanied by the wistful piano chords always conjures that fleeting adolescent joy and unadulterated friendship.
If summer isn’t all about sunsets and roses:
Now for a slightly different turn. What dramas do best are dramatizing—this is where the emotional aspect plays such a critical role, ensuring that every character’s responses are attuned to the situation and none are overlooked. It’s what allows us to empathize most easily, as well as realize that it’s okay to be expressive (it’s okay to not be okay). In The Glory, Moon Dong–eun (Song Hye–kyo) lives a vindictive, enraged revenge story after becoming the homeroom teacher of her former bullies’ children. In this OST, Paul Kim sings about Moon's tears becoming her bullies’ happiness, and the drama shows how she never forgot the dangerous escalation of harassment that victimized her. In South Korea, there is an epidemic of school bullying, so much so that dramas, movies, and other forms of media have been exposing it's underbelly for the last decade. By depicting such cruelty and trauma, K–dramas pick at the heart of significant issues through emotional connections and pure relational empathy, allowing others to understand the characters and their real lives.
But back to daydreaming:
Lalalala~ summer weekends are for long drives and listening to songs like this, for daydreaming and watching dramas like Hometown Cha–Cha–Cha. Everyone has thought about starting over, especially in an idyllic seaside town like Gongjin (set in the real city of Pohang). As Yoon Hye–jin (Shin Min–a) unexpectedly moves to Gongjin after choosing conscience over career, she finds herself back in the simple ups and downs of one’s hometown. This song makes me want to drop everything and move to Korea immediately—probably not to start a dental clinic like Yoon, but who knows what the future holds? That sentiment is exactly what this OST holds; for a brief three minutes and fifty seconds, you can bask in the idea of a romantic Sunday, where obligations can be pushed to the side, however briefly—before the week starts, it’s just you and your newfound love. To best capture this mood, Cha Jung–won sings with melodic strings in the background and tops every ascension with a chill electric guitar solo. Listening to the combination of strings, guitar, and steady drums makes you want to fly over Gongjin, searching for your own hometown love.
OSTs are inextricably linked to their drama and are repeated throughout the episodes, framing every encounter in their unique way. You can still catch me sniffling every time I hear a rendition of "You Are My Everything" by Gummy, which played continually in the background of the romance between Yoo Shi–jin (Song Joong–ki) and Kang Mo–yeon (Song Hye–kyo) in Descendants of the Sun. Such songs provide an impressive emotional backdrop. As soon as you hear the first notes of the main “goodbye” melody, you prepare yourself in bittersweet anticipation for whoever is departing next, conditioned into the next stirring experience.