[Discussion] Han Ye Seul and the Poor Working Conditions in Korean TV Drama Industry


Han Ye Seul’s effort to shed light on the poor working conditions of the Korean TV drama industry last week by going completely AWOL and boycotting further production of KBS drama “Myung Wol the Spy” (in which she lead acts for) was largely met with negative criticism a day after her return to Korea (she left for LA only to return within 48 hours of departure). She was blasted for her selfish act, which stalled all progress of the show, and was questioned what “poor working environments” really meant when it turns out her fee per episode is nearly 30 million won (apprx. $30,000 USD).

However, later that day when she returned to Korea on August 17th, public opinion started to sway as fellow actors and industry officials, as well as even the Korean Minister of Special Affairs spoke out to defend and justify her act.

Lee Jae Oh, Korea’s Minister of Special Affairs, wrote on his Twitter, “There’s going to be heated debate over Han Ye Seul’s act, but I’m trying to understand where she’s coming from. Keep your chin up!” He continued, “As long as you have the will to fix what is wrong, I believe that life is valuable in itself, whatever ordeal it may have to go through.”

Yang Dong Geun, the talented actor and rapper, also expressed his support for Han Ye Seul on his Twitter, saying, “Han Ye Seul is naïve. If she was sly, she would have just gone to the hospital, got IV shots, and complained about her long working hours, then she would not have been involved in this witch-hunt. The main culprit of this whole controversy is the broadcaster. They keep mentioning promises with the Korean people and viewers, but it just makes me sick.”

He then retweeted a message left by an anonymous user who claims to work in the Korean film industry, which read, “I’m not trying to defend Han Ye Seul. But Korean movie and drama industries are all violators of Korean labor law. When I was filming in the U.S., one of the American staff joked, ‘Don’t you guys get sued for working this long?’ but this is nothing to just laugh over. It’s a cowardly act just to point fingers at Han Ye Seul…we’re basically laborers and we have our own rights. Is it okay to infringe upon my own human rights for the supposed promises with viewers?”

Two days later, on August 19th, the Korean Actors Association added support by releasing a statement saying, “We cannot agree with the broadcaster and producer who make this out to be Han Ye Seul’s own personal problem. Her boycott was totally based on the chronic problem with Korea’s poor drama producing environment…We must blame the broadcaster and producer for pressuring killer filming schedules. To see a drama immediately miss an episode because the lead actress left for a couple days is a reflection of how poorly Korean TV shows are bring produced. Han Ye Seul was screaming for survival through this boycott. According to Korean labor laws, normal workers are allowed to work only 12 hours per week overtime, in addition to the regular eight-hour working days. Broadcasters, however, never felt guilty even when actors worked 100 hours overtime, reasoning they are not under legal protection of standard labor law.”


People involved in Korean dramas are known for working crazy hours. It’s common to work six days a week with only two hours of sleep every day when you film these 18 to 24 episode TV dramas, e.g. “Myung Wol the Spy.” There’s also a lot of “live filming,” where the production of a given night’s episode is completed on the day it airs. This is mainly due to Korea’s unique filming strategy, where the entire filming of the show rarely gets completed before airing the first episode, as the storyline and script tend the change depending on viewer opinion and TV ratings throughout the show.

In fact, Park Shin Yang, who starred in the 2005 hit drama, “Couple in Paris,” once said, “The poor working conditions where the cast and production team had to work 42 hours straight need to be improved,” while veteran actor Lee Soon Jae even went as far to say, “Korean actors currently work in life-or-death situations.”

Of course, it would be impossible to explain the entire Han Ye Seul controversy in a single column. We probably won’t ever get to know the real truth behind the entire fiasco and what her real motive was in deciding to run away and come back in a matter of 48 hours. Perhaps that’s why we still hear people who say this whole disaster was just a publicity stunt plotted by the entire cast and production team of “Myung Wol the Spy,” in an attempt to save the plummeting TV ratings of the show.

So what is your take on this? How do we comprehend Han Ye Seul’s decision? Was she being completely irresponsible and selfish? Or is it permissible to leave an on-going show, despite all the ramifications, and damage the whole progress of the show– as long as it’s for the right cause?