If you’re a Korean cinema fanatic from the past decade, chances are you’ve noticed some familiar younger faces starring in multiple shows and films. These Gen Z child actors have become welcomed favorites over the years, showcasing their range in emotional backstory scenes as they built up their filmography and skills with each project. Although there can be hidden difficulties with juggling fame at such an early age, those who remained in the industry have gained years of experience beneficial in preparing them for mature roles. Entering adulthood has also provided expanded opportunities for new roles for these seasoned actors. EnVi explores six former child actors who have grown up on screen and are now stars who will lead the next generation of film and TV series.
Kim Yoo-jung (1999)
Born in 1999, Kim Yoo-jung stepped foot in the entertainment industry at the young age of four with her on-screen TV cookie commercial debut. Making her acting debut the year after in DMZ (2004), Kim has stayed active in the acting industry ever since. By the time she graduated elementary school, she had over 20 works under her belt.
Conquering everything from K-dramas and films to theater, she has notably appeared in Dong Yi (2010) and Moon Embracing the Sun (2012) as a child actress. Kim swept the child actress category year after year and has won “Best Young Actress” in the SBS Drama Awards (2008), MBC Drama Awards (2010, 2012), and KBS Drama Awards (2010).
All eyes were on Kim’s outstanding acting as the cross-dressing undercover eunuch, Eunuch Hong, in her first lead role in Love in the Moonlight (2016). Gripping the hearts of fans, she received high praise from viewers. Eunuch Hong and Prince Hyomyeong (Park Bo-gum) were the nation’s latest fixation as fans rooted for the growing love between the two leads.
After Love in the Moonlight’s success, Kim grew into more lead roles with Backstreet Rookie (2020) and 20th Century Girl (2022), granting her immense domestic and international attention. Having covered a wide range of genres from mystery thriller to romance comedy since her early start in the industry, fans have seen every stage of her acting growth. As one of the most popular Gen Z child actor-turned-actors, Kim has rightfully earned her title of “Nation’s Little Sister.”
Park Ji-hoon (1999)
Born in 1999, Park Ji-hoon is well-known for placing second on Produce 101 Season 2 (2017) and debuting as a member of K-pop group Wanna One. Going viral for his “save you in my heart” move, Park has dominated the music industry with his aegyo and idol persona.
However, his child actor history has sometimes been overshadowed by his spectacular music career. Making his acting debut in Jumong (2006), Park entered the entertainment industry at the young age of seven. Park dived deep inside the broader entertainment industry before his idol career, dabbling in commercials, theater, film, and K-dramas. Appearing in works such as musical The Harmonium in My Memory (2010) and TV series Iljimae (2008), his life as a child actor was just the start of his bustling career.
After Wanna One’s disbandment in 2018, Park forged a dual path in music and acting. Releasing his solo debut mini album O’ Clock on March 26, 2019, his step towards singing didn’t come as a surprise. Exactly one month after releasing his debut album, he was cast in Flower Crew: Joseon Marriage Agency (2019), thus revitalizing his acting career. With a hot response from the public, Park garnered an outpouring of attention for his acting skills and visuals.
In 2022, Park landed a role as Yeon Si-eun in Weak Hero Class 1 (2022), portraying the life of a top academic student who gets entrapped in school violence, despite his sole interest in his studies. Fighting back against a rough academic environment, Yeon showed a different, darker side to Park’s typical cuteness. From Park’s on-stage sweetness to his on-screen toughness, his unique duality is one to look out for!
Kim So-hyun (1999)
Dubbed the “Queen of Child Actresses,” Kim has become one of the most successful adolescent starlets in Korean entertainment. She first drew attention as the younger counterpart of antagonist Lady Yoon Bo-kyung from popular historical drama Moon Embracing the Sun (2012), which received an impressive 42.4% viewership rating. The young actress was praised for her skills that have been said to hold up to and even surpass the adult leads. She continued to steal scenes in works such as Rooftop Prince (2012) and I Can Hear Your Voice (2013).
In her first lead role, the actress played identical twins with drastically different personalities in the KBS School series Who Are You: School 2015 (2015). Despite such a daunting role, Kim overcame the hardship of juggling two characters with her attention to detail. Her wholehearted performance shined since the first episode – getting covered in flour, egg, and fish sauce in the “high difficulty” scenes. She exploded to greater heights with Netflix’s first Korean series, Love Alarm (2019), starring opposite Song Kang.
As she continued polishing her talent, the actress dabbled in a variety of genres: romantic comedies, melodramas, period dramas, and even action. Demonstrating an edgier, more complex character in River Where the Moon Rises (2021) than in her previous roles, Kim was nominated for Best Actress in a TV series at the esteemed 2021 Baeksang Awards. Although Kim didn’t win, she became the youngest actress to ever be nominated for the category at the age of 22. The young actress shows no sign of stopping with two upcoming dramas Is It Fate? (2023) and Useless Lies (2023) slated for release later this year.
Kang Chan-hee (2000)
Chan-hee, also known as Chani, has captivated audiences with his honey-like vocals and charming persona as a member of K-pop boy group SF9. Born in January 2000, Chani stepped into the entertainment world while he was very young and made his acting debut in the K-drama Queen Seondeok (2009). At the age of 11, he dived into a bigger role with the series Listen to My Heart (2011), and a year later, he played the younger version of Song Joong-ki in The Innocent Man (2012). Later on, he took bigger roles in several TV shows such as The Queen’s Classroom (2013), Splendid Politics (2015), and Signal (2016), setting the tone for a promising career.
Following his debut with SF9 in 2016, Chani worked on other projects alongside his music career. Since then, Chani has participated in several productions and web series such as Sky Castle (2018) and Under the Queen’s Umbrella (2022). Mixing both passions, he lent his voice to different dramas’ original soundtracks. In fact, Chani not only acted in the romantic comedy True Beauty (2020), he even contributed to its soundtrack. Being in the entertainment industry since he was a child has allowed Chani to try several forms of art and expand his range. Although it remains unknown if another project is in the works, it is safe to say that Chani has a bright future ahead of him.
Kim Hyang-gi (2000)
Like many child stars, Kim started off with modeling gigs and commercial work before venturing into acting. However, it wasn’t until her pivotal role in television series The Queen’s Classroom (2013) that the young actress grew in recognition. Her performance as Shim Ha-na, a cheerful and rebellious sixth grader, even won her the Child Actor award from the 2013 MBC Drama Awards. Considered her breakout role, her work as Lee Deok-choon in the action fantasy blockbuster series Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds (2017) catapulted Kim’s name onto the map. Her acting as an empathetic maknae (youngest person in a group) afterlife guardian stood out even against her renowned co-stars, actors Ha Jung-woo and Cha Tae-hyun. Kim was also applauded for her ability to charm the audience despite the darker emotional undertone of the films.
At 18, Kim starred in her first romantic comedy, Moment of Eighteen (2019), as the lead actress opposite Ong Seong-wu. Demonstrating a new romantic side to her as a teenager falling in love while undergoing adolescent struggles allowed viewers to connect with her realistic portrayal. Despite the step into new genres, it was difficult to leave behind her younger past image as she explored lead characters. It wasn’t until 2022 that Kim began to leave child acting roles behind and found her footing as a widower in Poong, the Joseon Psychiatrist (2022). Her more recent role of a meek intern who blossoms into a confident woman in the drama Salon de Nabi (2022) weaves her familiar work of naivety with a mature complex air. Her distinct acting style is a reminder to long time viewers that despite her changes we’ll always see Kim’s roots shine through.
Nam Da-reum (2002)
The young actor got his start in acting at the age of seven with the well-acclaimed series Boys Over Flowers (2009). With such a strong leap into the field, Nam has since gone on to build an impressive filmography as the younger counterpart of Hallyu leading men such as Lee Jong-suk, Jung Hae-in, and Jang Ki-yong. Nam has become a memorable face for many, turning heads with his acting prowess as a pitiful innocent child versus a complex moody teenager. His uncanny ability to weave characteristics of his older counterpart actors’ performances creates an in sync portrayal as their younger selves, proving his compelling and solid acting skills. It’s no surprise the actor has been a part of a long list of Korea’s most successful and beloved works, most notably with Guardian: The Lonely and Great God (2016), While You Were Sleeping (2017), Hotel Del Luna (2019), Start-Up (2020), and Doom At Your Service (2021).
Nam impressed viewers with a more grown up appearance in his leading role as Na Woo-soo in mystery thriller The Great Shaman Ga Dooshim (2021). From kiss scenes to combat sequences, Nam showcased his capabilities in the romance and action departments. Most recently, the 21 year old decided to enlist with a promise to return as an “improved version of myself as an adult and as an actor.” Although Nam’s decision to enlist early came as a shock for many, it may prove advantageous in the long run for the young actor’s career. After years of childhood acting, Nam will be able to focus on transitioning to larger roles once he makes his comeback. With the glimpses they’ve already seen of Nam’s growth, fans hope that his experience in the military will continue to pave the way for more mature lead roles in his future.
Looking for your next K-drama to binge watch? Read our First Impression on TVING’s All That We Loved here!