From “The Penthouse 3” to “Big Mouth”, various K-dramas face backlash for insulting cultures and distorting history.
With the rise of the Hallyu wave and platforms like Netflix, people from different countries are exposed to K-dramas more frequently. However, as global interest grows, ethical standards are also becoming higher. In particular, there have been cases where controversies arose due to insults to other countries’ cultures and history, and below are some of these cases.
“The Penthouse 3” – Cultural appropriation
In season 3 of the SBS drama “The Penthouse”, controversy arose over the portrayal of Logan Lee’s (played by Park Eun Seok) cousin Alex Lee (also played by Park Eun Seok). Alex Lee’s appearance, with reggae hair and flashy tattoos, was criticized for perpetuating a caricatured style associated with black culture.
As criticisms intensified, actor Park Eun Seok apologized in English through his TikTok account, stating that he had no intention to harm or mock black people with the character’s appearance. However, he also acknowledged that his approach, intended to praise culture, was close to “cultural appropriation”.
In addition, the production team of “The Penthouse 3” also asserted that they did not intend to caricature any specific race or culture.
“Big Mouth” – Insulting Thailand
The MBC drama “Big Mouth”, which aired in July of last year, faced heavy backlash for insulting Thailand. In particular, the drama’s 2nd episode shows male lead Park Chang Ho (played by Lee Jong Suk), who is falsely accused and imprisoned, engaged in a dispute with a death row inmate, saying, “Did your mother eat seaweed soup while giving birth to you? What did she eat to give birth to a psycho like you? Was it Tom Yum Goong? Or Pad Thai?”
Naturally, Thai netizens who saw the episode expressed shock at the racially discriminatory dialogue. They later took to social media to show their anger, explaining that it is discriminatory to say that one may become a psychopath by eating Thai food.
“Narco-Saints” – Insulting Suriname
The popular Netflix series “Narco-Saints” (Korean title “Suriname”), which featured prominent actors such as Ha Jung Woo, Hwang Jung Min, Park Hae-Soo, Yoo Yeon Seok, and Chang Chen, among various others, also faced a huge controversy.
The story of “Narco-Saints” is based on a real-life drug lord, who was a Korean that fled to the small South American country of Suriname and became an international drug dealer. The series also depicts the story of a civilian businessman (played by Ha Jung Woo), who had no choice but to cooperate with the secret operation of a National Intelligence Service agent (played by Park Hae Soo) to capture the aforementioned drug lord.
The drama received great popularity worldwide. However, upon its release, the government of Suriname showed a strong response. In particular, they took issue against the series’ original title of “Suriname” and stated that they would consider taking legal action against the production company.
A Surinamese Minister further claimed that the “Narco-Saints” production team portrayed their country negatively by associating it with drug trafficking, despite immense efforts to improve its image as a country no longer involved in drug transportation.
In the end, while the series’ Korean title remains as “Suriname”, the English title was changed to “Narco-Saints”.