List of Smart, Strong Korean Drama Female Leads: Adding A Pinch of Brains to the Niceness

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.  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.  You're welcome to use them in any upcoming dramas, provided that Lee Min Ho is the one saying these lines.)


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 competent 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: This list is all about brains.  Some of these leads have other weaknesses that we didn't love, but many of them are all-around awesome.




1. Kim Yoon Hee (Sungkyunkwan Scandal)

I actually started watching Sungkyunkwan Scandal because I really, really needed a show 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.  


I want this to be her theme song.

2. Hwang Tae Hee (Queen of Reversals)

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. 

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

3. Sam Soon (My Lovely Sam Soon/ My Name Is Kim Sam Soon

Sam Soon might not have book smarts, but she has something more important: food smarts.  This is the perfect example of finding strengths outside of traditional education.  I'm okay with female leads who aren't nuclear physicists if they are pastry geniuses instead.  To be honest, if I had to decide whether I could have a PhD or become a world-class patisseur, I would probably choose blood orange cream filling every single time. Drool.

This scene is kind of a waste of delicious cake, but the fact that she
combines her baking prowess with the guts to shove cake into a man's face is pretty commendable.

4. Noh Eun Seol (Protect the Boss)

What I love about Protect the Boss is that neither lead is really living up to his or her potential until they join forces.  Noh Eun Seol readily admits that she spent more time hitting bullies than hitting the books in her school days, but that doesn't make her stupid.  She is creative and innovative and finds ways to help her boss tap into his own smart ideas.  In a position that chews through Ivy League graduates faster than you can say "all that student debt for nothing," Eun Seol shows her competence by thinking outside of the box and winning everyone's approval. 

Bonus points for beating up a man who tried to sexually harass her in the first episode.  Extra bonus points for telling the rich chaebol that kissing her without permission is also harassment.

I can't tell if she is punching or cheering, but in either case, she will be victorious!

5. Gong Ah Jung (Lie to Me)

Lie to Me was the first drama I ever saw where the female lead didn't start out starving in a gutter or hiding from loan sharks. Unless an unexpected swarm of bees shows up to trash a major international event, Gong Ah Jung is an excellent public servant.  She takes her position so seriously that when the government tries to fire her, she basically says, "Nope, sorry, I'm actually awesome at my job."

Yoon Eun Hye's best "I love working a desk job for the government!" face
Source

6. Seo Yi Soo (A Gentleman's Dignity)

I already mentioned how I sort of bonded with Yi Soo in my review of this series, but I want to praise her skills again here.  She might be somewhat frozen-faced around her love interests, but in her regular life, she is a personable educator who is able to reach even the most difficult of students. She's not just a teacher; she's a really good teacher, and that's not something to dismiss.

Why yes, that IS an entire classroom of teenage boys applauding during a lesson.
What's next?  A unicorn dancing with a leprechaun?

7. Jang Hye Sung (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.

Source

8. Ma Hye Ri (Prosecutor Princess)

I know what you're thinking.  Ma Hye Ri on a list of positive female depictions?  Impossible!  I know a lot of people saw Hye Ri as a whiny child throughout most of Prosecutor Princess, but I'd like to make a case in her behalf (Get it?  Make a case?  Because she's a prosecutor?  I'll stop now.).  In the first episode, we find out that Hye Ri aced her exams without studying and then graduated at the top of her law class with ease.  Even if she's self-absorbed and useless at first, no one can deny that the woman has some brains under that hideous mop of hair.  Once she stops focusing on herself, she actually turns out to be a pretty strong prosecutor, too.

I don't think it's any coincidence that the level of crazy perm in Ma Hye Ri's hair
has an inverse relationship with the quality of her work.
Source

9. Yoo Jung In (Vampire Prosecutor)

Okay, if you really want to see a female prosecutor done right, look no further than Yoo Jung In.  Unlike the previous two entries, 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.

"Let's see who wins"?  It's you, Yoo Jung In.  You win.  At everything.

10. Kim Na Na (City Hunter)

Last but not least is City Hunter's Kim Na Na.  This is Park Min Young's second entry on this list, but it's for quite a different role.  This time, she's a talented, driven bodyguard with goals to make it to the Blue House.  Not only does she have brains, but she can also best Lee Min Ho at judo. For more about how awesome she is, see Coco's review of the series.

Must...restrain...envy...


So who did we miss?  What other series should we check out for other smart, capable women?  What characteristics do you love in kdrama female leads?

Which Smart Kdrama Lead Is Your Favorite?
  
pollcode.com free polls 

Watch Kdramas With Strong Female Leads:
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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!

Comments

  1. I think Ma Yoo Hee from Witch Yoo Hee was one of the first smart females that I saw in any Asian drama. I voted for Sam Soon because I love her, plus I haven't watched heaps of those you listed - I'm so far behind!

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  2. A couple people you missed that came to my mind: Lee Shin Young and Kim Boo Ki in the woman who still wants to marry!

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  3. I absolutely loved Noh Eun Seol and I die for Ma Hye Ri’s beautiful high cheekbones. Well, okay. I just loved her period. Prosecutor Princess is one of my top five favorite Korean dramas. In any regard, she was pretty flawed in the beginning, but that left room for some tremendous growth. I was a big fan of Kim Na Na for the exact reason pointed out in the blog, the problem I eventually had with her was that she became increasingly attached to Lee Yoon Sung. Which is okay, only that the more he would push her away, the more I screamed for her to regain her self-sufficiency. Nonetheless, her aiming her revolver while in her suit was just glorious.

    This may be a stretch, but I want to mention two gray-area female leads that also come to my mind as being smart and resourceful over their men counterparts. One is Jang Mi Ri from Miss Ripley and the other is Joo Da-Hae from Queen of Ambition. Like I said, totally gray area considering they are the “catwomen” of Korean dramas. However, their exploits were shamelessly smart and devious that I halfway cheered for them without guilt.

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    1. What you mention about Na Na is my issue with most of the ones in the list I have watched and most such heroines in general. They are smart and capable, but only until it's time for drama and turning the leading man into a hero.

      Then they are turned into damsels in distress, or worse, are punished for daring to be self-reliant. It's almost like the story takes capable women and tries to tame them, like all good little b*tches should be, which is even more disrespectful.

      Take even OCN and Jung In. She almost got raped, vampy had to save her. Even in this latest season, she gets in trouble, he has to help. She is the innocent fragile human this vampire or his problems might hurt, poor creature.

      That's my issue with most Korean dramas. Capable, properly independent women are either evil or then eventually succumb to or make way for the man to shine. Even the evil ones are usually turned into pathetic ones who are only evil because their womanly fragile feelings got hurt.

      The situation is much better in Korean movies, I have to say. A lot of them have very capable heroines that get stuff done, without needing anyone to help or letting anyone meddle in their affairs.

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    2. Yeah, it makes me furious when kdrama leads turn into crying puppies halfway through the series. I debated putting some of these people on the list, but I figured they all showed enough capability to make the cut.

      I'm crossing my fingers that season 3 of Vampire Prosecutor doesn't have him jumping in to save Jung In. Better yet, SHE should save HIM. I feel like she's tough enough to pull it off.

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    3. Agreed. The woman is capable and even strong vampies have issues and weaknesses. Even when the deal with his sister went on, he saved her and then she could only watch. I say, let the woman save the guy sometimes too. Balance is a wonderful thing in relationships. And well, not dating blood-sucking handsome ajeossis, but that one's gone out the window already. :P

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  4. I voted for Kim Yoon Hee, but the truth is I haven't seen the majority of the other ones. I guess there are more dramas to add to my already impossibly long list ;)

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  5. I think Deokman from the Great Queen Seondeok was brilliant and her nemisis Mishil was even more so :)

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  6. First of all, thank you for the article. This is the way in which the gender inequality in Korean society shows. Series aimed at young women are made by/have decisions made on them by middle-aged men. Producers, station owners etc. So for a show to stand a chance at being aired, you usually have to stay within those accepted topics and characters. And nothing seems more reasonable to this society than teaching its young women that being nice and hard working and willing to do it all for your man, being his good little swooning slave, is what every woman should aspire to.

    As for adding to this list, I'd add Yeochi of 'History of the Salaryman'. She's not nice in terms of behavior and while she may not be interested in work or studies, she proves to be quite a smart woman. When push comes to shove and things get tough, she makes and plan and starts applying it herself, leaving the male lead thinking she is off crying somewhere and contemplating suicide. Which turns him into a very confused short-term alcoholic, but that was not really her intention. :P Yes, she is not the brightest and yes, she does get fooled herself. But she picks herself up and fixes it. She also does accept help when is given and she needs it, but she does not depend on it and she offers her own share of help to her guy too, which is a functional relationship.

    There are many examples, actually. Some even seem like they wouldn't be, due to behavior, but they are in fact self-reliant strong women. I shall use this piece as an inspiration and make my own list of such heroines from dramas I've seen. Some day. Very interesting topic.

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    1. Yes! Please write another list! I have to admit that my primary motivation in writing this list was to get suggestions for good female leads to watch. So far, it's working!

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  7. Great post, thanks!
    I would add Kim Sun Ah's role in City Hall to your list, as well. She did not have book smarts, and was content to use her native cleverness to just get by for years, but when pushed she showed immense strength of character that not only brought her amazing success but also helped the hero to become a better person (which he desperately needed).

    It is difficult to find strong, capable women in kdramas. Older women and moms are usually screaming monsters, younger women thinking only of falling in love and getting married.
    The lead in A Gentleman's Dignity actually infuriated me; she was such a good teacher, why did they have to make her out to be a twelve-year-old nitwit about relationships? I am sure it was all meant for a laugh, but it was a cheap laugh because it was so unrealistic. Does the heroine always have to have more faults than the hero? It is a breath of fresh air when shows like City Hall or Protect the Boss let the heroine do some of the rescuing.

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  8. love this post! I'm always on the look out for dramas with strong female leads. Go Eun Chan in Coffee Prince is strong female lead too. She's not book smart but she's not stupid and she's definitely no pushover.

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  9. I voted for Kim Na Na in City Hunter, but really my vote goes to Park Min Young generally. In Sungkyunkwan Scandal, City Hunter, Dr Jin and Man of Honor she played characters who were neither stupid nor passive. So the progressive, enlightened part of me is delighted that she plays strong, competent roles, but the sappy romantic side of me screams in frustration at her apparent aversion to onscreen kisses, Sungkyunkwan excepted!

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  10. Thank you so much for this list! I'll note some of these as "too watch"

    It really annoys me to no end, in k-dramas and anime. I'm afraid there's a good reason why the president of Myanmar called out these South Korea and Japan as being sexist. Sometimes you really think the series are made to brainwash women.

    And it's not just that the male leads call these women stupid. They really are that stupid. It's like it's a pleasant treat in a woman...

    Anyway, I'll end the rant here. I've only seen City Hunter out of your list, but I really liked how Kim Na Na went into a room and kicked some guys' ass to save her man. (Ok, she nearly was shot, but that could have happened to a guy, too.) That's quite a rare scene even in Western media.

    One woman that I think should make this list, too: Yoo Eun-Soo in Faith. I'm aware that she is quite dependable on others, but I think it's due to the situation and not to her being a woman. In this situation she does an amazing job, imo, in navigating through all the intrigues, etc. And in the end (spoiler alarm!) she manages to build up a life in yet another time without, figures out the pattern of the time travel portal and manages to return. Plus she's a very capable surgeon, of course and able to keep her cool in very stressing situations.

    I also agree with modern girl about Kim Boo Ki in The Woman who still wants to marry, though I'm not so sure about Lee Shin Young.

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  11. I'm nominating Oh Dal Ja of Dalja's Spring. It's quite an old series but I find it a Classic and one of my all time favorites. She's smart and independent. Despite the ticking clock (because she's in her 30s and her ommoni and halmoni are pressuring her to get married) she still chose a great job opportuny over the man she love (younger guy - which is another issue)

    Beatrix

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  12. Im just barely past the halfway point of Gu Family Book, but Im really loving Yeo Wool's character. She definitely does not fit the helpless, poor, dumb, but nice mold. She's rather more of a witty, strong, and courageous type of heroine... which I of course love :)

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  13. Off your list I've only seen Sam Soon and Kim Na Na. I don't know if it was going thru that "time of the month" or what, but I loved and still think about Sam Soon. I don't usually get all weepy about lovey dovey stuff, but man, when she was sad, I was sad too. I really don't know why her character in particular attached itself to me in such a way! (and, omygosh, I am in love with Hyun Bin to boot).

    Wait, this was about strong women. Why am I talking about tears? I guess I need to get on some of these dramas you've listed.

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  14. Have you seen Gu Family Book? The female lead is very strong and smart.

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  15. Dae Jang Geum is like the epitome of strong female character. Though she is occasionally naive and too trusting, she is tenacious and tough beyond belief. Even her love interest cites that he loves her most for her strength of character. The woman pretty much subjugated a King through her intelligence!

    Maybe these sorts of cut throat/ kick ass female characters are more common in court drama's such as Dae Jang Geum, but I looked up to her so much as a kid.

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  16. I really like Gil Ra Im in Secret Garden. She's strong, confident, and good at her job. I'm not sure about her brains, but she is a success with what she has.

    Yoon Jae-hee in Lovers in Prague is a diplomat who knows several languages. She chooses to work, even though she's the president's daughter. I think she would make the list on smarts.

    I love Gong Ah Jung in Lie to Me as well. It seems kind of silly, but it's on eof only a few dramas that I've watched a second time. And Kim San Soon is great, and I really enjoyed the way she was not a typical drama heroine in either looks or personality.

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    1. I LOOOOOVVVVEEE your choices. I love the fact that these were strong women , but like all us strong woman sometimes we are allowed to take a little help. If we dont get rescued once, how will we know a true knight?

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  17. Did you watch Princess's Man? Because Lee Se Ryung is one of the strongest, most courageous k drama lead I've seen. She's so awesome. I love how she stands up to any man be it a king or an officer. She should really be on your list.

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  18. Other strong women: The doctor in "Faith"... I'm yet to see a character quite like her. She told the bad boys to go to hell on more than one occassion and could hold her own. Another strong lead woman was Ha Ji Won in King 2 Hearts. The future King Lee Jae Ha had to rely on her on multiple occassions. She was really kick ass! Smarts and Strenghts - good combo!

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  19. I came here after typing this into google " strong_smar- classy-beautifull-not sorry for themselves-can stand up infront of a guy_ female leads in k-dramas". And i'm sad to say i've already watched all of the dramas you listed i wanned one i haven't seen sooo badly :'( and the reason why i did it is because i just finished "my princess" a woman who despite the fact that she is a princess and can tell'em all to f!!ck off has no dignity, no pride, and lets everyone boss her around always looking down and forgiving them being nice and sweet and blah blah blah just like you said she the playfull kiss kind of girl he insulted her humiliated her by reading her letter out loud and when he kissed her she forgave everything (if it were me he would've a missed tooth) don't gget me wrong i absolutely loved the show( kim hyun joong to be exact :D ) but i couldn't watch it again because of oh hani i'm too stupid to think attitude following him all over the place and what really pissed me off was at their wedding night she is thrilled when he told her you're not beautiful but you're SOMETIMES cute uuuuuuugggghhhh i closed my computer at that second (watched later the thai version and he was alot more sensitive and pasionnate if anyone hasn't seen it i strongly recommend )

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    1. What about History of a Salaryman or King 2 Hearts? Those were two that I watched after I finished this post, and both had strong female leads.

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  20. My vote goes to Chae Rim's character Cha Young Jin in Powerful Opponents (2008). She is strong-willed, tough, and dedicated as any of her male bodyguard colleagues, while also remaining nurturing, sensitive, and emotionally honest in her relationships. And in the end, when faced with potential romance with either of the male leads, she clear-headedly chooses what is best for herself.

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  21. Gil Ra Im from Secret Garden who is strong & determined (& who beats the male lead's leg often, which I like the most-so funny) and Park Ha from Rooftop prince who just played basketball when she saw her man hugging another woman; also her b4life character Miss Smart Bo Young-- these two I think should be on this list. Eun Chan from coffee prince can also be considered for her strength & skill in Taekwondo and for taking responsibility of feeding her family at a young age.

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  22. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh, I was looking for a list like this...!! Basically everyone else in the comments said what I wanted to say...I stopped watching K-dramas because I couldn't handle how the women were portrayed in many of them. It's heartening, at least, to know that I'm not the only one that feels that way.

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  23. One of my favorite female leads is Geun Jan Di from Boys Over Flowers. You have to be pretty hardcore to deal with Gu Jun Pyo. Not to mention the awesome spin kick that helped him fall in love with her. Also, no matter what Madam Kang threw at her she was able to overcome it and she always held her head high. I love that this drama also has some awesome supporting characters such as Jun Pyo's noona Gu Jun-hee and Jan Di's best friend Chu Ga-eul, both of whom know how to stand up for themselves. This was the drama that started my life changing obsession so the story and all of it's characters have a special place in my heart.

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  24. I thought the main female in Empress Ki was pretty strong both mentally and physically.

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  25. i lovee ur list !! and i want to add Kim In Suk, from royal family , a smart and strong woman ( the drama even is great !! )

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  26. Definitely Cheon Song Yi from My Love from Another Star and Go Eun Chan from Coffee Prince. Those two are my fave female leads of all time. No one can mess with these two ladies.

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  27. I know this is a bit late but try these two dramas because they have my all time favorite female leads
    1. My Love From Another Star
    2. Coffee Prince
    they are so kickass and awesome esp. the first one...no one can dare hate her haha

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  28. or what about the guys learning to get help and be rescued for once? or why can't it be about an awesome partnership between equally capable people, how is that not way more romantic?

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  29. Agree 100%. I think that Mi Rae's character (Kim Sun Ah) is definitely the more heroic in this drama (if we're comparing hero and heroine). She takes all the traditional "feminine k-drama characteristics" (hard-working, kind) and builds on them to become mayor of her town. As mayor, she's a true politician for the people, which inspires the hero to become a better public servant. And [SLIGHT SPOILER] even at the end, when you think the hero is going ot save the day, she one ups EVERYONE and saves the day her OWN way. [\END SPOILER]


    The character of Mi Rae in 'City Hall' will always be one of my favorite k-dram heroines. It also doesn't hurt that the chemistry between Kim Sun Ah and the male lead, played by Cha Seung Won, is off the charts. Seriously, they melt your screen!

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  30. Missing the most: Gil Ra Im from Secret Garden. She is a stuntdouble and just nails every action scene (That's probably because her actress Ha Ji Won is just plain badass) and fights men like nothing. Also she knows how to verbally go against the lead male and has the upper hand most of the times.
    So yeah: Gil Ra Im- Secret Garden

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  31. Can I just say that the person who wrote this is aweaome!!..I almost gave up on finding a good Korean drama with non whiny girls who cry all the time and are only satisfied with being called nice or kind..thank you ^_^ I'll enjoy my self with this list!!

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  32. great list, watched them all save for lie to me. I hope you update the list soon because there are many new dramas that fill the criteria and how. My latest favourite is empress Ki I think she takes the cake for being the most awesome lead in a drama series, she's better than all the men in her own story and better than most male leads in other stories as well. seeing her be all competent ingenious and kickass throughout the show and become the empress out of her own ability felt so damn good. never before have i fangirled over a woman so much. Another contestant to come could be from this new drama Kill Me Heal Me which looks to be great from the first few episodes and which has a smart and independent female lead again. Maybe SKorea is growing out of its misogyny? A few older dramas with good female leads which you didn't mention would be Dal Ja's Spring and The woman who still wants to marry

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  33. Gil Ra Im from Secret Garden? Oh Ri Jin from Kill me, Heal Me. Oh, and Ha Na from Jekyll, Hyde and Me. Oh! And Chae Yong Shin from Healer. (I realize some of these are newer and therefor just haven't made it on the list yet.)

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  34. One of the main reasons I reeeally love Ha ji Won is her playing in almost all of her dramas/movies a smart, independent and badass woman with so many different characteristic facets!! She can be smart, witty, elegant, cute, hot, naive, sly, powerful, independent and suddenly soft and caring and it doesn't seem as if she is bipolar or losing her original character. I highly recommend watching all of her work!

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