How South Korean TV Actors Make Bank While Extras Scrape By

kdrama actors salary per episode
Credit: SBS, JTBC

A recent analysis of actor salaries in the K-drama scene has highlighted the massive pay disparity between leading and extras. Some leading actors earn up to 2,000 times more than their bit-part colleagues, sparking a wave of calls to improve conditions for lesser-known talents.

Today, Lee Sang Heon, Chair of the Culture, Sports and Tourism Committee and a member of the Democratic Party of Korea, cited a report by the Korea Broadcasting Actor’s Union and Korea Broadcasting Performers’ Rights Association that examined this issue. Nine dramas were scrutinized over the past two years, with SBS’s Payback exhibiting the most staggering gap.

In Payback, lead actor Lee Sun Kyun raked in a cool 200 million KRW (roughly 168,000 USD) per episode. In stark contrast, the extras took home a measly 100,000 KRW (roughly 84 USD) per episode. Similarly, in SBS’s One Dollar Lawyer, lead actor Namkoong Min pulled in 160 million KRW (roughly 134,400 USD) per episode, whereas the extras earned a paltry 200,000 KRW (roughly 168 USD)—a whopping 800 times less.

kdrama actors salary per episode
Credit: Yonhap News

Other shows like JTBC’s Snowdrop also featured staggering pay gaps, with the lead actor earning 110 million KRW (roughly 400 USD) per episode, compared to extras who were paid just 150,000 KRW (roughly 126 USD)—that’s a 733-fold difference. MBC’s The Golden Spoon displayed a similar trend, with the main actor making 70 million KRW (roughly 58,800 USD) per episode while extras got a mere 100,000 KRW (roughly 84 USD), amounting to a 700-times pay disparity. The research showed that the most common minimum appearance fee on drama sets was between 200,000 and 300,000 KRW (roughly 168 to 252 USD) per episode.

On average, it took 2.63 days to shoot a single episode, and actors spent 9.99 hours on set, including 3.88 hours of waiting time. The issue is exacerbated by so-called “lump-sum contracts,” where actors are paid per episode without regard to time spent on set. This practice leaves extras struggling to even make minimum wage after deducting necessary expenses like costume costs.

The industry standard in foreign countries, which calculates fees based on actual time spent filming, starkly contrasts with the Korean system of paying per episode. Lee Sang Heon emphatically stated, “We need to aim for upward equalization by establishing a minimum pay threshold to provide actors with a basic standard and compensation.” He then stressed “the urgent need for institutional discussions to protect the labor and survival rights of extras struggling financially due to inadequate pay.”

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