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The 10 Best Smart, Strong Korean Drama Female Leads

by Amber Simmons

Ever since my Queen In Hyun’s Man review, I’ve been thinking about the stereotypical dumb-as-a-rock-but-nice kdrama female lead and searching for some smart, strong female leads to root for instead.  I really, really liked the leads in that show, but I was infuriated that she kept calling herself stupid the whole time (and no, I don’t think that his response of “You’re not stupid; you just don’t know anything” made things much better).

In many dramas, it’s much worse. The male lead often belittles the female lead for her stupidity, pushing on her forehead with his finger and saying things like “Do you just smash things with this rock?” or “I’m surprised you can even chew food with this useless lump.”  (I don’t know if those are actual kdrama insults, but they sound like real kdrama insults.)

If a man did this to me, I would break his finger off.  And then do some calculus out of spite.

Now, I’m not saying that every woman has to be a rocket scientist, but these shows seem to consistently assume that the only thing women can do well is being “nice.”  That’s why they need big, smart men to help them escape their own stupidity.  In essence, saying that women are always stupid and incompetent infantilizes them.

For those of you kdrama viewers who get tired of girls pounding their fists on their heads and blinking absent-mindedly, I’ve put together a list (in no particular order) of some smart and sassy kdrama female leads who have some brains behind all that beauty.  If you don’t mind the she-can’t-tie-her-own-shoes-but-she’s-so-cute lead, then you’re welcome to ignore this list and go watch Playful Kiss or You Are Beautiful on repeat.

Note: We’ve overhauled this post to celebrate all the many wonderful K-drama female leads we’ve seen since we originally composed this in 2013. Updated: November 2017

1. Baek Yeo Chi (played by Jung Ryeo Won), History of a Salaryman

Have I ever mentioned how much I love Baek Yeo Chi? Let me say it once again. Are you feeling sad and let down by all the downtrodden, mousy, idiotic female leads out there? Do you get enraged when strong female leads become all docile and domesticated by the end? (I’m side-eyeing you, Prime Minister and I.) If so, You. Must. Watch. This. Show. Baek Yeo Chi will never let you down with her fire and sass that miraculously last from her first appearance onscreen all the way through the last few seconds of the series.

2. Kim Yoon Hee (played by Park Min Young) Sungkyunkwan Scandal

I want this to be her theme song.

I actually started watching Sungkyunkwan Scandal because I really, really needed a K-drama with a female lead who was smart enough to hold her own against the male characters.  Kim Yoon Hee to the rescue!  In terms of gender-bending dramas, she’s the anti-Go Mi Nam. I’m pretty sure you would never catch Yoon Hee accidentally gluing her fingers together, even if she time traveled and had never seen glue before. But she goes way beyond this bare minimum of brain power; she’s a brilliant scholar who refuses to give up on knowledge just because she’s a girl.  

3. Hwang Tae Hee (played by Kim Nam Joo), Queen of Reversals

I suspect that she derives special brain powers from her helmet hair.

Hwang Tae Hee doesn’t even have niceness going for her, so maybe she has to be smart by default.  Even her enemies can’t deny that she’s the best of the best at her job, but their constant sabotage is no match for her sharp wits. 

Full Queen of Reversals review

4. Choi Yoo Jin (played by Song Yoon Ah), The K2

In my mind, the complicated, conniving, and charismatic Yoo Jin definitely ran off with Je Ha, while Yoona’s bland Anna had a lifelong love affair with her favorite ramen packet. I didn’t actually finish this series, so no one can convince me this thing ended any other way (*puts fingers in ears*). As much as The K2 tried to distract me with Ji Chang Wook naked-fighting a bunch of other dudes in the shower (and boy oh boy, did it try to distract me), Song Yoon Ah easily stole the show with a character who was not only one of the most interesting antagonists I’ve seen in a drama, but also one of the best female characters, period.

5. Cha Soo Hyun (played by Kim Hye Soo), Signal

You know what crossover drama I would watch the hell out of? One where Signal‘s Cha Soo Hyun chases The K2‘s Choi Yoo Jin around and around and around in an amazing game of cat and mouse. (And if Jo Jin Woong and Ji Chang Wook make cameos as well, so be it.) Yoo Jin might have the edge on cunning, but Soo Hyun is a badass who doesn’t give up easily. These are both tvN dramas, so there’s really no reason this can’t happen—someone give me money for this genius idea! *grabby hands*

6. Chae Young Shin (played by Park Min Young), Healer

This list could have been a rundown of Park Min Young roles, but for the sake of variety (spice of life and all that), I’ll leave it at my two personal favorites: Sungkyunkwan Scandal and Healer. You’d think it would be hard to hold your own when you’re in a relationship with a super-secret ninja-like dude, but nope. Young Shin doesn’t have to jump across buildings to be her own brand of awesome as a tenacious reporter who refuses to let go of the truth. At the end of the day, having a female lead this powerful in her own right sells the romance and makes it all work.

7. Jang Hye Sung (played by Lee Bo Young), I Hear Your Voice

Jang Hye Sung comes with a bit of a caveat.  She’s smart and good at her job, but only when she wants to be.  She isn’t always passionate about doing a good job, but when she is, she can work a case like a champ.

8. Yoo Jung In (played by Lee Young Ah), Vampire Prosecutor and Vampire Prosecutor 2

“Let’s see who wins”?  It’s you, Yoo Jung In.  You win.  At everything.

Okay, if you really want to see a female prosecutor done right, look no further than Yoo Jung In.  Unlike the previous entry, she comes to the job full of passion and a drive to succeed.  When she gets left out of the boys’ club for being female and a non-vampire, she doesn’t mope or dress up as a boy.  She just does her own sleuthing (without the help of cheater vampire powers, might I add) and solves crimes on her own. Also, she beats up gangsters. Also also, she interrogates people like a boss.  Also also also, I LOVE HER. (Also also also also, can we please have Vampire Prosecutor 3 now?)

9. Ji Hae Soo (played by Gong Hyo Jin), It’s Okay, That’s Love

This might be a weird thing to say,
but she also gets bonus points for knowing how to dress herself in professional attire.

I love when drama characters feel like real humans with real flaws, and that’s Hae Soo for sure. She’s a smart, capable doctor who clearly cares about her patients and stands her ground when she crosses paths with Jang Jae Yeol, but she’s also vulnerable in realistic ways that make her stand apart from completely sweet female leads.

10. Eun Ho Won (played by Go Ah Sung), Radiant Office

I didn’t ever expect to be saying this when the series first started, but Radiant Office is definitely one of my top three K-dramas of 2017, in large part thanks to Go Ah Sung’s depiction of the determined Eun Ho Won. I love how the series built up a large cast of side characters, and yet it never lost sight of Ho Won as the core of the show.

Why didn’t Cheon Song Yi make the cut?

As I was revising this list for 2017, a friend of mine complained that basing the list on brains alone automatically excluded a lot of fantastic female leads who are interesting and wonderful in other ways. My Love from Another Star‘s Cheon Song Yi is the obvious choice—she’s brash and outlandish, even if the show consistently plays off of her idiocy. Weightlifting Fairy‘s Kim Bok Joo and Angry Mom‘s Jo Kang Ja are some other favorite characters who didn’t quite make the cut (though Kang Ja’s street smarts almost put her on the list anyway despite her lack of traditional book smarts).
I know, I know.

Then there’s the other end of the spectrum, with characters like Cheese in the Trap‘s Hong Seol, who is intriguing and multilayered, even if she’s a bit too timid to be included in a list of “strong” characters.

There’s definitely a point to be made there, though I decided to stick with the original spirit of this list with “smart” female leads because I remember my intense frustration back in the day when every single drama constantly harped on the idiocy of its women in contrast to the geeeeeenius men who love them. I’m happy to see that we’re slowly getting to a point where we don’t have to have it all one way or the other, and we’re balancing out even more well-rounded characters for both men and women.

Who are your favorite K-drama female leads?

So who did we miss? What other series should we check out for other smart, capable women?  What characteristics do you love in K-drama female leads? We’re always looking for more drama recommendations!


If you’re curious how our original list from 2013 ranked, here it is. I’m happy to say that quite a few old favorites held strong, but we’re also seeing new female leads to challenge the title!

1. Kim Yoon Hee (Sungkyungkwan Scandal)
2. Hwang Tae Hee (Queen of Reversals)
3. Sam Soon (My Lovely Sam Soon)
4. Noh Eun Sol (Protect the Boss)
5. Gong Ah Jung (Lie to Me)
6. Seo Yi Soo (A Gentleman’s Dignity)
7. Jang Hye Sung (I Hear Your Voice)
8. Ma Hye Ri (Prosecutor Princess)
9. Yoo Jung In (Vampire Prosecutor)
10. Kim Na Na (City Hunter)

Watch Kdramas With Strong Female Leads:


Note: After a recent layout switch, we’re seeing comments posted before April 7, 2017 missing on a few posts. We’re working on a solution, and in the meantime, any new comments you leave will work!

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