Cover Jung Hoyeon attend Los Angeles Screening Of Netflix's "Squid Game" at NeueHouse Los Angeles on November 08, 2021 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

From Jung Ho-yeon’s acting debut in Squid Game, Han So-hee’s complete transformation, Ahn Bo-hyun finally getting his due and more, these are the biggest Korean drama breakout stars of 2021

Every year, Korean dramas are surging in popularity and with that Korean stars have also managed to capture the attention of critics and viewers alike with their show-stopping performances. This year, Squid Game became a household name as Netflix’s most successful show. It’s inevitable that its main leads have also become superstars in and outside of South Korea.

Some of the biggest breakout moments include Jung Ho-yeon’s acting debut in Squid Game, Han So-hee’s complete transformation, Ahn Bo-hyun finally getting his due and more. As the year comes to a close, let’s look back at the Korean drama breakout stars of 2021 and see what they have in store for next year.

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1. Jung Ho-yeon

Ask anyone who loves K-drama to name a breakout star of 2021 and the name on most people’s lips is Jung Ho-yeon. Her debut role as Sae-byeok in the hit Netflix series, Squid Game turned the first-time actress into an overnight acting superstar where her Instagram followers skyrocketed to almost 24 million (as of the date of writing). Her popularity also led to one endorsement after another including Louis Vuitton.

Long before Squid Game, Jung is already a highly sought-after model who has graced the runways of international fashion shows as well as covers of local and international various publications. She recently signed with Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top agencies in the US. Now, eyes on Jung as to what her next acting project might be.

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2. Jeon Yeo-bin

When the casting for Vincenzo was first announced, many raised eyebrows as to who will star opposite Song Joong-ki in his comeback drama. The name Jeon Yeo-bin didn’t ring a bell for many. But now she’s a rising rookie actress on everyone’s radar, oftentimes called a rookie monster due to her versatile acting skills even as a newcomer.

Jeon’s portrayal as the feisty Hong Cha-young might have made her a superstar but the actress has already wowed critics in After My Death—her first-ever lead acting project—which earned her several acting nominations and awards.

In Be Melodramatic, her first K-drama lead role, she bagged a Best New Actress nomination at the Baeksang Arts Awards. This year, Jeon’s movie Night in Paradise was also released on Netflix which catapulted her popularity even further.

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3. Wi Ha-joon

Another Squid Game cast member who got their big break this year is Wi Ha-joon. The 30-year-old actor is now one of the newest heartthrobs and many are pinning him for a leading man role. His impressive performance as Hwang Jun-ho definitely made him an actor to watch out for.

Wi has starred in several Korean dramas as a supporting cast member until 2020’s 18 Again and of course, Squid Game. Now, the actor is headlining the iQiyi drama, Bad and Crazy alongside Lee Dong-wook. He’s also poised as the lead for an upcoming 2022 drama, K Project.

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4. Han So-hee

Han So-hee technically got her big break after starring as Yeo Da-kyung in the highest-rated Korean drama in TV history, The World of the Married but there’s no denying that 2021 is Han So-hee’s year. This year, Han showcased her versatility as an actress. After gaining popularity for playing a mistress, she went for a more youthful look in Netflix’s Nevertheless opposite Song Kang.

After that, she completely transformed herself into an action star, shedding her beautiful image for the action noir drama, My Name where she played an undercover cop. For the series, Han trained for three months and did almost all her stunts which surprised many of her fans and gained her new admirers.

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5. Tang Joon-sang

Tang Joon-sang caught the eye of many after his supporting role in the hit mega K-drama, Crash Landing on You. This year has been good to Tang as he starred in two other Netflix originals. In Move to Heaven, he played a character with Asperger syndrome which earned praises from viewers. He earned a nomination for Best Newcomer in the Asia Content Awards.

This landed him another drama, this time a sports-themed one. In Racket Boys, viewers get to see Tang’s more youthful and playful side.

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6. Ahn Bo-hyun

Ahn Bo-hyun initially wowed audiences with his villain role in Itaewon Class. This year, the actor showcased another side of himself as he took on two leading roles that are equally different from each other: a charming one in Yumi’s Cells and a more action-driven one in My Name.

The 33-year-old actor has played plenty of supporting roles over the years but thanks to the two dramas, he’s finally getting the recognition that’s long overdue.

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7. Go Min-si

Go Min-si gained traction for her roles as the “mean girl” and for her supporting roles. But when she starred as Song Kang’s potential love interest in Sweet Home, many started paying attention to her as a leading lady in the making. And soon enough, the actress landed her first lead role opposite her Sweet Home co-star (who played her brother in the series), Lee Do-hyun.

There, Go ditched the typecast and played the kind Myung-hee with grace and power. She also starred in Jirisan, Jun Ji-hyun’s comeback drama. This year, Go also received the Best Newcomer trophy at the Asia Contents Award.

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8. Koo Kyo-hwan

It might not be fitting to call Koo Kyo-hwan a breakout star considering that the actor has been raking in acting awards as early as 2018. But among the few Korean dramas that he’s starred in, D.P. certainly introduced him to a wider audience. Now, the drama has been renewed for a second season and while casting hasn’t been confirmed yet, we can expect that Koo will return.

Besides being an actor, Koo is also a talented director, having directed at least seven short films. While Koo is well-known for his work in Korean movies, he’s also been poised for the upcoming K-drama Monstrous in 2022.

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