You don’t need to speak Korean to watch online Korean shows. If you currently use Netflix, Hulu or iTunes to watch movies and shows, you can watch subtitled K-dramas just as easily. It’s also possible, but costly, to buy subtitled shows on DVD.
For advice on choosing shows—and a discussion of why so many non-Koreans enjoy these shows—you can also check out my complete Korean drama FAQ.
How to Watch Online Korean TV—Short Version
Viki and Drama Fever both provide streaming HD video of Korean dramas, and both offer the option for premium members to watch without ads for a monthly fee. The most popular shows and the latest releases are available on both.
The most important factor in choosing may simply be price. For Americans, a premium pass at Viki is $3.99/month and at Drama Fever it’s $9.99/month. As long as you can handle commercials, you can watch for free. The commercials usually get to people after awhile, though.
I don’t have a preference myself, but I like that the two companies have distinctly different styles and focuses.
It’s also cool that their subtitlers come up with slightly different translations. (Korean grammar allows sentences to be ambiguous about subjects and objects, so listeners have to guess based on context.) If I’m confused about a line or a scene, sometimes I’ll go watch the other site for clarification.
How to Watch Online Korean TV—Long Version
Viki: Global Television, Lots of Languages
Viki is an amazing resource for subtitled Korean drama in all languages. Back in the nineties when we dreamed the internet would be a beautiful land of milk and honey, this was what we had in mind. Everybody coming together! Breaking down the walls between nations! The ultimate public space open to everyone!
The name “Viki” combines “video” and “wiki”—and like Wikipedia, Viki runs on the passions and energy of volunteers from around the world. That’s right, volunteers do the subtitling, and do a damn fine job of it.
Viki also charges a subscription fee, which goes chiefly to supporting the computer servers and tech developers. This is reasonable—big computer servers aren’t free—but I’m uncomfortable with the fact that the subtitlers aren’t getting paid. Viki is a weird blend of the old fan subtitling groups and modern high tech commercial services. We’ll see how long it can last.
Viki’s library has thousands of shows from around the world—not just South Korea, but India, Taiwan, Vietnam, you name it. You can choose what language you want for your subtitles. Volunteers are working on subtitles in dozens of languages, but if you’re looking for a less popular language like Afrikaans or Nepali, fewer shows will be available.
On average in 2014, the latest Korean dramas are subtitled into an average of ten languages within one week of broadcast. That includes the major languages of North and South America, Europe and the Middle East.
I don’t know what’s more impressive about Viki—the number of languages or the speed they work at. For popular shows, subtitles in major languages may be ready within twelve hours of a show’s broadcasting in Seoul. That’s the power of crowd-sourcing. (I love that it’s possible to watch online Korean shows in both Arabic and Hebrew, within a day of broadcast in Seoul!)
Sometimes Viki finishes subtitling before Drama Fever. If I want to know what happens next on a show, I’ll check both sites and watch the episode on the one that gets it available fastest. But speed isn’t everything. Let’s go back to the sheer number of languages: Viki is encouraging subtitling in endangered languages and that’s just cool.
Viki does have advertising. Alternatively it will sell you a “premium pass” for $3.99/month for ad-free viewing. Despite the volunteer subtitlers, it’s a real company with investors and offices in San Francisco, Tokyo, Singapore and Seoul.
Drama Fever: South Korean Focus, Mostly Subtitled in English + Spanish + Portuguese
Drama Fever is a leviathan and a sign of the times. Less than a decade ago, the only way to watch K-dramas in English was via “fan-subs”—videos subtitled by fans and distributed pretty freely on the internet—if you found the right people to ask and had the technology for downloading. One of the big ones was Written in the Heavens Subbing Squad, which still maintains a large library.
Were these shows “pirated”? Depends on your definition. If a show was never licensed for broadcast in the U.S., it was sitting in a legal black hole. A fan-sub was the only way for anyone to see it and appreciate it. Fans sometimes say they would like to pay for a show if they could, but if it isn’t available in their country, it’s not immoral to share.
Drama Fever and Viki started in 2009 and 2010, respectively, and since then the fan-sub groups have retired from the field. Another Utopian dream of the free internet turns to commerce! But on the bright side, it’s now dead easy to get ahold of dramas from Korea, no need for BitTorrent or any other excursions into legal gray areas.
New York-based Drama Fever provides a large library of Asian dramas subtitled into English. Most of these shows are South Korean, but Drama Fever also has content from Japan, Taiwan, China, Singapore, and Spain. Many of the popular Asian shows are subtitled into Spanish and Portuguese for South American audiences. They also sometimes offer shows dubbed into Spanish.
The biggest development of 2015 was that Drama Fever added a number of BBC costume dramas to its roster, including the famous wet T-shirt Mr. Darcy version of Pride and Prejudice. (The one with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.) It’s a smart move, designed to appeal to the female viewers at the heart of K-drama’s overseas popularity.
You can watch Drama Fever three ways: 1) with ads, 2) through their partnership with Hulu, or 3) purchase a “premium membership” for $9.99 a month. I finally broke down and bought a membership because my hair was going gray during the long ad breaks. On the other hand, the frequent ads forced me to get out of my chair, so they were probably good for my health.
One intriguing thing about Drama Fever: in their push to become America’s subtitled Netflix, they were the first streaming site to secure exclusive deals with Korean broadcasters, starting in late 2013 (Heirs was one of their first high-profile exclusives). Viki has since followed suit. It’s now not uncommon to find that a popular show is only available on one site or the other—or a show that’s available on one site two or three weeks before it’s available elsewhere.
Kdrama.com, Soompi and Other Lost Causes
In 2014, Crunchyroll, a major streaming site for Japanese anime, experimented with its own K-drama site. Crunchyroll had carried dramas as well as anime for some time (I first encountered K-dramas through Crunchyroll). But with Crunchyroll’s purchase of the domain name kdrama.com, they looked like a possible rival to DramaFever and Viki.
The new site at kdrama.com was less robust and user-friendly than Crunchyroll’s well-established streaming site, however. In September 2014, the company announced changes for Kdrama.com: Crunchyroll was combining with Soompi, the long-established Korean entertainment news and discussion site they recently purchased.
Soompi TV quickly worked out the technical kinks and offered a well-functioning site. But despite Soompi’s popularity for celebrity gossip and fan forums, many viewers were never aware that it offered a streaming service. From the outside, it appears Soompi had a small staff and wasn’t able to keep up with the competition.
In late August 2015, Crunchyroll sold Soompi to Viki and Soompi quietly folded its streaming experiment. “Soompi TV” now takes users straight to Viki’s website, where the library combines Viki and Soompi’s offerings. Crunchyroll’s out of the K-drama business for good.
What About Old-Fashioned DVDs?
For viewers in the United States, it’s easier and cheaper to watch online Korean shows than to search out hard copies. If you want to own one special show, it’s tricky. Many K-dramas don’t make it to DVD. But a few classics are available year after year, even older ones like “My Lovely Samsoon” (2005).
Shopping at Yes Asia is more fun, though—it’s a glimpse into all the fan products East Asia has to offer. Yes Asia’s Korean drama selection includes prices comparable to Amazon, which is nice for people who try to support businesses other than Amazon when they have the chance.
Wherever you order from, make sure you get DVDs in the right format for your continent.
Soompi used to offer a buying request service. They wouldtrack down the obscure Korean CD or DVD you were looking for—if it existed. Alas, the Soompi shop was another victim of intense marketplace competition, and folded in spring 2015.
At the moment competition is intense to get K-drama viewers. With the failure of Crunchyroll’s k-drama venture, we’re left with only DramaFever and Viki. Hopefully, keen competition between the two will keep them on their toes. But it’s a very different world than it was just five years ago—K-dramas have gone corporate, for better or worse. ♥