The Koryo Saram living in Uzbekistan are descendants of Koreans who resettled from Primorsky Krai and Khabarovsk Krai in Russia to Central Asia around 1937. However, unlike the majority of Korean diaspora communities that were formed through voluntary migration, the Koryo Saram of Central Asia were forcibly resettled as a consequence of political decisions. And as a result the Koryo Saram who settled in Central Asia faced huge challenges adapting to their new geographical and sociocultural environment, and as ethnic minorities these challenges were intensified. The establishment and growth of the Korean diaspora community of Uzbekistan took place within this context.
Over the past few decades, the Koryo Saram of Uzbekistan have been diligently passing down their intangible cultural heritage with a sense of pride in their culture and with some passive support from the Soviet government. Within this environment of transmission, the Uzbek Koryo Saram established performance troupes in various genres of the arts such as the Koryo Theatre, Gayageum, Cheongchun and Jinju in Ushtobe, Gurlen, and Tashkent. These performance troupes perform plays based on Korean folklore, Korean gayageum music, traditional dance, orchestras, and choir performances. However, the economic instability resulting from the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 greatly changed the transmission environment among the Uzbek Koryo Saram communities. A key example of the consequences resulting from the changed environment is the disbanding of the Kkotbonguri Dance Troupe, a Koryo Saram dance troupe in Uzbekistan.
Of the post-Soviet activities to safeguard and transmit intangible cultural heritage, the efforts of the Koryo Saram dance troupes deserve special mention, especially with the somewhat recently established Samjiyeon Dance Troupe, Asadal Dance Troupe, and Koryo Dance Troupe under the Central Koryo Saram Culture Association of Uzbekistan (Koryo Association). Established in 1998, Koryo Dance Troupe is the oldest of the three while the Samjiyeon Dance Troupe and Asadal Dance Troupe were established in 2014 and 2015, respectively. With the exception of Koryo Dance Troupe, young people (in their twenties and thirties) head up these troupes and the dancers are in their teens and twenties. Key activities of all the troupes include both dance education and performance.
These Koryo Saram dance troupes perform at various events, including the traditional Koryo Saram festivals of Chuseok (a harvest holiday) and Seolnal (Lunar New Year), and thus play a central role in the continued transmission of intangible cultural heritage. The dance troupes also perform at events alongside various other ethnic groups, promoting the Koryo Saram community’s place within Uzbek society as an ethnic group with a unique and honorable heritage, living harmoniously with its neighbors.
From 10 to 24 July 2016, the leaders and members of the Koryo Dance Troupe, Samjiyeon Dance Troupe, and Asadal Dance Troupe, numbering six total, were invited to the National Intangible Heritage Center of Korea (NIHC) in Jeonju to learn the seungjeonmu (victory dance), registered as National Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 21 of the Republic of Korea. The NIHC has been conducting these annual training programs for Central Asian Koryo Saram since 2014 to support their learning of Korean intangible cultural heritage. These training programs also include cultural activities to help strengthen their identities as Koryo Saram, such as performances, exhibitions and field trips to places where elements of intangible cultural heritage are transmitted. In 2014, five participants from Uzbekistan and two from Kazakhstan were invited to learn Gyeonggi minyo (folk songs of the Gyeonggi region, National Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 57) and taepyeongmu (dance of peace, National Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 92). This was followed in 2015 with the invitation of four participants from Uzbekistan to learn jinjugeommu (sword dance of Jinju, National Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 12).
Although two week is a short amount of time to perfect the seungjeonmu, the Koryo Saram participants worked hard during the training program. Upon returning to their homes, the dancers plan to teach the dance to their fellow troupe members and perform for audiences of both Koryo Saram and other ethnic groups in Uzbekistan.
Young Uzbek Koryo Saram have been migrating to other countries, such as Korea and Russia, in search of economic opportunities. As this continues across generations, their ethnic identity as Koryo Saram is weakening. So, in this context, the passion that the Koryo Saram dance troupe members show for learning and transmitting Korean dances is a highly interesting. Diana Ko, a fifteen-year-old dancer in the Samjiyeon Dance Troupe participated in the NIHC’s training program this year and said, “When I learn the traditional dances of Korea, I feel a sense of belonging to the Korean community, which I never felt before.
None of the members of the Koryo Saram dance troupes from Uzbekistan can speak Korean. However, they play an important role in their community, strengthening their Korean identity and building a sense of belonging among members, by transmitting the intangible cultural heritage of dance.
In 2018, construction of the House of Koryo Culture and Arts, a hub for Koryo culture and intangible cultural heritage transmission activities, will be completed in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Let’s look forward to the meaningful activities that will be taking place at the newly constructed facility.