Uniting Heritage and Hallyu: Denver’s Debut Colorado Korean Culture Festival

Asia Korea

Taekwondo demonstrations, K-pop dance battles, and even a live traditional Korean wedding ceremony awaited residents of Denver at Colorado’s first-ever Korean Culture Festival in September 2023.

In late September, Denver hosted the inaugural Colorado Korean Culture Festival as the Hallyu– the “wave” of Korean culture gaining global popularity – continues to expand nationwide. The festival united Korea’s rich traditional heritage with modern cultural exports, from Taekwondo demonstrations and a live traditional Korean wedding ceremony to K-pop dance battles and a performance by Korean American singer Justin Park.

Christine Alling, the festival’s founder, describes in a Denver Gazette interview her motivation to create the festival by uniting Korean culture fans with Denver’s limited Korean population. The metropolitan Colorado capital is home to a minuscule 4.2% Asian-origin population (121,000 people) as of 2022, while the state itself remains only at 3.8% (221,000 people).

A recent Korea Foundation poll report from 2022 identified 16.2 million Hallyu fans in the United States; US fan counts alone number greater than fans in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East combined.

A limited Korean population translates to a limited Korean small business presence in Denver. Alling’s nonprofit, Colorado Korean Festival LTD, which ran the festival, prioritized Korean small business exposure, with more than 20 vendors selling art, food, and other miscellaneous products. According to Alling, engagement with the festival aims to support Korean businesses now advertising in English and have Korean culture enthusiasts fund local ventures instead of online import sites.

Sponsors for the event include the local Emich Kia dealership in Denver – a branch of Kia Corporation, the second largest automobile manufacturer out of South Korea –, WM (i.e., Waste Management), and PepsiCo. Other local sponsors include The Denver Foundation, Colorado College, and the Filipino-American Community of Colorado. Since the festival’s inauguration, the Colorado Korean Culture Festival has received a diverse array of sponsorships mimicking existing festivals across the nation.

Beginning with the Los Angeles Korean Festival in 1974, public Korean festivals have flourished across major US cities in recent decades. Their universal mission to disseminate knowledge of Korean culture and traditions has inspired additional festivals in Chicago, Washington, DC, Houston, Fort Wayne, Minneapolis, New York City, and other American cities.

Festivals hosted in cities with a South Korean embassy or consulate presence – including Washington DC, New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, etc. – are sponsored in part by their respective Korean diplomatic missions, and if applicable, their attached Korean Cultural Centers (KCC). KCCs promote Korean culture through local organizational partnerships, programming, and education while furthering US-Korea bilateral relations. Aside from Los Angeles, KCCs in both the nation's capital and New York self-host their city’s festivals in partnership with local Korean American artists, small businesses, and Korean-based companies.

Colorado’s ties with South Korea continue to burgeon this year with the Metropolitan State University of Denver adding Korean language courses following high demand, members of the Aurora Office of Integration and Immigration Affairs leading efforts to establish a Korean consulate in the city, and Denver area high school students representing the nation at the world’s first drone soccer championship in South Korea.

The Colorado Korean Culture Festival also commemorated the long-standing 70th anniversary of US-ROK relations and the continued efforts by local Korean communities and organizations to increase cross-cultural understanding. The Denver festival connected cultural fans with the local Korean community, demonstrating that cultural festivals can foster Korean cultural awareness across communities in Colorado and throughout the United States.

Declan Mazur is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington, DC. He holds a bachelors in Global China Studies from New York University Shanghai with a concentration in Political Science.