MODERN DANCE in America is hardly a new art form -- it began developing here in the early decades of this century, certainly before a well-recognized classical ballet tradition had taken root. But in other countries with a solid folk dance heritage, modern dance has had a later start and has not gained acceptance as quickly.

Next week, the Kennedy Center presents three "emerging" Korean choreographers in a program that will offer a glimpse at how contemporary dance has been interwoven with that nation's native traditions.

The choreographers on the program are not exactly emerging, however, only relatively unknown to American audiences. All have established reputations in their homeland.

"We have really wonderful choreographers in Korea," says In-young Sohn, one of the choreographers on Monday's program. She helped coordinate the event along with the Korea Society and the Kennedy Center. "They want to combine Korean traditional dance and Korean themes and feelings with American modern dance. They're making a fusion dance."

Ae-soon Ahn has created what Sohn calls "Koreanized modern dance." Her work, "The 11th Shadow," incorporates 11 dancers and traditional shadow puppet play infused with Buddhist symbolism about the creation and rhythms of life.

Ho-bin Park performs "Secrets of the Green Scorpion" with his wife, focusing on the female bug's post-mating practice of dining on the male.

Sohn will dance two solos, one of her own and one by American choreographer Claire Porter. Porter's "If My Words Wore Boots" was created specifically for Sohn, whom Porter met while Sohn was studying dance education at Columbia University in 1992.

"When I came here the first time I had a lot of language problems," Sohn explains. "As a dancer, if my words wore boots I could say a lot, I could do anything. It's about the frustration in my mind."

Sohn says she and the other choreographers have unleashed a new channel of creativity by linking Korean traditional dance with modern dance. In their emotion-driven, highly nuanced native style, she says, "we don't use a lot of large movement -- it's not very up and out. It's in and down, everything is inside. It's very thoughtful.

"We have a troublesome history," she continues. "We're always in between China and Japan -- we have a lot of wars. That's why I think the music and dance has sadness." Incorporating the more physical, vigorous style of American modern dance has allowed the dancers to be more expressive.

"You have to use your body," Sohn says, "not just your inside."

EMERGING KOREAN CHOREOGRAPHERS -- Monday at 7:30 p.m. in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Admission is $15. Call 202/467-4600.