The Business of Korean Dramas: Paychecks

So how much do actors and actresses make for taking on the consistently played bouts of amnesia, love sickness, and longing that dominate Korean drama land? How much do they get for starring in a time travel drama or a melodrama or a cable show? Well, the answer is (of course) not as easy as a simple figure. Nope, instead there are a whole lot of things going on when it comes down to how much green Lee Min Ho has to stuff in his burlap money sack. In other words…..Siwon King of Drama GIFs!!!!


So, you can’t tell me what they pay actors?  

I can tell you what they pay some of the actors, but I cannot give you a hard and fast formula to figure out how much of the production budget is going to hero #1. Plus there needs to be a huge wrench thrown into the pay scale when you consider how many actors it takes to put on a drama – remember, there are the leads, the second leads, the extended cast, and the extras. They are all actors.

at least

Okay, so there are a lot of actors and actresses in a drama. Can you at least break out pay ranges by the type of role they play (lead, extra)?

Such a novel question! It is common sense that the leads are taking home the largest portion of the budget; after all we are talking about the stars that bring their loyal fans into the viewership (and therefore ensure some sort of ratings). However the actors and actresses that are not leading the story towards high ratings are paid significantly less…

How much less are second leads and extras paid?

Protest outside KBS

“Three years ago, I was cheated out of more than 2 million won, too (USD$1,774). The producers fled the country, and the broadcasters kept refusing to take responsibility for the money. There was no one I could go to and complain about it. I’m not sure that the actors are going to get their money this time either…”

Veteran actor B followed this statement with a long sigh. He has more than twenty years’ experience acting in Korean dramas. While TV viewers might not recognize his name right away, his face is familiar. (, 2013)

The life of a secondary actor is rough – the life of an extra is worse. Common sense dictates that the stars of the show should be paid first, whatever is left over is fodder for the secondary leads and the extras:

“Let’s say that a broadcaster and a producer have agreed to shoot a miniseries for 120 million won (US$107,000) per episode,” A said. “At least 60 million won goes to the male and female leads. That leaves at most 60 million won to cover the wages for the staff on the set, the cost of renting the equipment, and doing the graphics work. The only solution here is for the production company to decrease the money it pays the staff, which can eventually mean the wages aren’t paid at all. The biggest problem is that broadcasters tend to avoid the risk of losing money, which makes things harder for the production companies since they insist on unrealistic production fees.”

Clearly there is a hierarchy when it comes to who gets paid. At the bottom of the barrel are the extras, which amounts to around 20,000 people per year (Heo, 2012).

Extra protests

In May of 2012 a Mother and Daughter began protesting in front of KBS, holding up signs that said “Before you start Bridal Mask give me my Dad back!” Their protest was founded on the death of an extra in the super hit Gakistal (aka Bridal Mask), who unfortunately passed away when a bus carrying extras for the show was involved in a car accident. The family’s misfortune continued as the Korean Workers’ Compensation and Welfare Service (KCOMWEL) failed to honor a claim for death benefits- because neither the broadcast company nor the talent agency that had hired the extra would take responsibility over the man’s hiring. A tragedy that could have been averted (besides the accident) if there were more clear cut hiring practices when it comes to the drama industry.

top star

Wow! That was super depressing. So extras and second leads are paid like s**t. Is that all because of the top stars?

No. It is because of a lack of regulations. If wages or working conditions were more tightly regulated a lot of the tragedy regarding the thespians of Korean Dramas would be averted (or at least severely mitigated). As I have mentioned before the entire production crew – actors included – of a drama are often subjected to the live shoot schedule. Which really sucks out the health of those who participate, extras included. A largely inhumane work list, the live shoot has everyone working an insane amount of hours per day with little preparation:

“Now I’m dead,” sighed a top star who was filming their first miniseries in three years. Another celebrity lamented, “About all the miniseries do is improve your ability to improvise, your ability to quickly memorize things and focus from moment to moment.”

Their complaints stem from the problem of routinely receiving scripts at the last-minute. B explained, “With a miniseries, you should start filming about two months in advance, but nowadays it’s considered wonderful if you can film just one month ahead. Film is money, and these cash-strapped production companies want to cut down on the amount of filming they do. Now, with the scripts provided page-by-page, three teams of cameramen work on a rotating basis, and the actors find themselves in front of the camera without any rest. This may be the only country in the world where the actors stay up all night and wait for the script as they’re getting their makeup done. They talk about the ‘IV sets,’ where everything looks nice on the outside but things are actually really brutal.” (Kim, 2013)


Speaking of long hours and extras:

Mun Gye-sun, president of the national labor union for extras, recalled a 2007 case in which an extra in his fifties died of shock after participating in a 17-hour shoot for the KBS program “Secrets of Life.” The death was not recognized as an industrial accident by KCOMWEL.

Actor Kwon Sang-woo, who starred in “Queen of Ambition,” once complained that he had been shooting the series “up until 30 minutes before the last episode was aired.”

Many say the last-minute scripts and all-night filming have reduced the quality of miniseries and resulted in a flood of low-grade shows that emphasize sensationalism over performance.

“Sometimes, I get the script and think, ‘Am I supposed to be some kind of acting machine?,’” said B. “Dramas these days have technicians, not actors. There have been a few times when I‘ve looked at myself and just thought I was pathetic.”

money and fans

Now can you tell me how much the top stars are paid?

I guess I could have told you all along, but that would have defeated the point of this post. There are a lot of articles out there touting how such and such was paid an exorbitant amount of money for a role. Is that the rule? Nope, but it makes for headlines. So some examples (some of these shows, okay a lot of these shows are a few years old. Sorry, it is what I could find in terms of hard facts):


All figures are in USD…that is some green! Cash money!


You have to take into account that actors and actresses have expenses too – like stylists, managers, talent agencies, and assistants. It takes more than one person to keep a superstar super, and it takes a significant chunk of a star’s paycheck to keep the machine running. But never fear, apparently Korean super stars are still on the cheap side…

Huh?! What do you mean cheap side?


I mean that there have been articles floating around internet land this year claiming that Korean actors and actresses are being hired by Chinese production companies due to their low, low price:

Chinese media revealed that for the past two years, Korean actors have taken lead roles in 10 Chinese dramas and claims that it’s because “Compared to Chinese actors, Korean actors have a cheaper guarantee.” According to one drama associate, Chinese actors are paid about $130,000 USD per episode while Korean actors are paid about $60,000 USD per episode.  Although it’s comparatively lower than what Chinese actors are paid, Korean actors are still paid 30% more than what they would receive for a Korean drama.  Media also claimed that Chinese actors are more fickle with accommodations, making Korean actors more favorable candidates with drama producers.

But in retrospect there are all sorts of pay scales for all sorts of actors and actresses- it varies by country and genre. It is a falsehood to say one countries television show is another countries television show is another countries television show. Because, not every country has the same economy nor the same monetary value placed on entertainment nor the same price tag attached to an actor. Now, I am in no way saying Korean actors and actresses should be “cheaper” than Chinese thespians – because both countries have their fair share of effective and horrid when it comes to acting. What I am saying is that the general economy of a country effects the going price for actors. And what I am also getting at is the fact that I cannot believe that Chinese stars go more Diva than Korean stars (or maybe I need to sit my butt down and get watching some Chinese entertainment).

So let’s rundown the issues


Feeling bad? So am I. Let’s talk amongst ourselves:

  • Actors and actresses are cast in many different roles. From the lead thespians to the extras, everyone is putting on a show. Unfortunately there are not rigid (or even plausible) workplace standards in place to maintain humane working conditions. Such long hours inevitably effect morale, quality, and the actor’s health.
  • The paycheck an actor brings home is split between the team that keeps the star going and the star himself (or herself) – think a mini-business focused around one person. So no matter how much a star is paid, we are not talking about the star’s actual take home pay when it comes down to the figures flashed around blogs and news sites. This fact is often lost in the conversations around the money doled out to the thespians of Korean drama land.
  • Extras are often left behind. When it comes time for paychecks to be handed out, you can bet guy in café #3 is pretty much at the bottom of the “have to pay” list.
  • The lack of regulations –salary wise, hour’s wise, and extra casting wise, continuously creates a mess of a world in drama land. Behind the scenes there are veteran ensemble actors not getting a paycheck, and that is just sad (considering some of these actors have continuously graced our screen for years as the beloved Dad, Mom, sidekick, or Aunt that we all recognize).

The more I research the more I realize the Korean Drama industry is a broken bit of an entertainment process. Not in story, not in the exact images I see play across my screen. Nope, I like what I see. But what is behind what I love continues to make me shake my head. Regulate already! While I am not going to stop watching dramas any time soon (that is just unrealistic on my part) I do hope that the Korean entertainment world formulates some regulations to ensure pay and humane work hours. Because if they do not, I only see this situation getting worse, especially with the growing export potential of Korean dramas.

“Failed Dramas Still Result in High Star Price Tags » Dramabeans » Deconstructing Korean Dramas and Kpop Culture.” Failed Dramas Still Result in High Star Price Tags Comments. N.p., 7 July 2008. Web. 19 Oct. 2013.

 Heo, Jae Hyun. “The Dark Shades of Korean Dramas : National : Home.” The Dark Shades of Korean Dramas : National : Home. N.p., 24 May 2012. Web. 12 Oct. 2013.

 “[How Much?] – Stars’ Pay.” HanCinema. N.p., 17 Apr. 2008. Web. 10 Oct. 2013.

 Kim, Yang Hee. “The Unglamorous Lives of Korean Drama Actors : Arts & Entertainment : Home.” The Unglamorous Lives of Korean Drama Actors : Arts & Entertainment : Home. N.p., 4 June 2013. Web. 19 Oct. 2013.

 “Lee Byung-hun’s Acting Fee Dwarfs Industry Guideliny News from Korea – Lee Byung-hun’s Acting Fee Dwarfs Industry Guideline.” The Chosun Ilbo (English Edition): Daily News from Korea – Lee Byung-hun’s Acting Fee Dwarfs Industry Guideline. N.p., 12 Nov. 2009. Web. 12 Oct. 2013.

 “NATE.” 네이트뉴스. N.p., 29 Apr. 2013. Web. 19 Oct. 2013.

 Park, Si Soo. “Who Is the Highest Paid Actor?” Who Is the Highest Paid Actor? N.p., 26 June 2013. Web. 15 Oct. 2013.

 “TV Stars’ Fees Keep Spiraling.” The Chosun Ilbo (English Edition): Daily News from Korea – TV Stars’ Fees Keep Spiraling. N.p., 30 July 2010. Web. 16 Oct. 2013.


3 thoughts on “The Business of Korean Dramas: Paychecks

  1. It really is horrible, isn’t it? It makes me want to stop watching dramas because it’s like I’m supporting an industry that has no respect for anyone in it. I don’t want to support that industry. It makes me wonder why anyone actually works in an industry like that, although I guess if that’s all they’ve got, they make it work however they can.

  2. Again, another awesome, informative post. I was reading somewhere about the influx of idol actors commanding unreasonably high fees simply because they’re idols and attached to bigger agencies with enough clout to demand higher fees, which is also throwing pay scales out of whack. Tis indeed a screwed up system but the hamster wheel keeps on running…

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