Hand in hand, North and South Koreas seek to end wrestling over Unesco applications

Traditional Korean wrestling, known as ssireum in the South and ssirum in the North, may be the first joint inscription in Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage list for the two countries.
Traditional Korean wrestling, known as ssireum in the South and ssirum in the North, may be the first joint inscription in Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage list for the two countries.PHOTO: AFP

ANDONG, SOUTH KOREA (AFP) - North and South Korea have long grappled over their joint symbols at the United Nations culture organisation Unesco, but they could share the honours this week when twin applications for traditional Korean wrestling come up for consideration.

The two Koreas are still technically at war after the 1950-53 conflict ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, sealing the division of the peninsula with an impenetrable border.

But despite their vast differences, the democratic South and the communist North share the same language, culture and traditions dating back thousands of years, resulting in subtle rivalry for Unesco inscriptions in recent years.

South Korea added its tradition of making kimchi - a fermented cabbage dish widely enjoyed across the peninsula - to Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2013, prompting the North to seek the same status for its own version, granted in 2015.

The Korean folk song "Arirang" has a similar story - the South's was recognised in 2012, followed by the North's two years later.

"The South and North are registered as different countries at the Unesco so we have been working separately," said the South's Cultural Heritage Administration, which handles Unesco applications.

But for traditional Korean wrestling, ssireum, the South applied in 2016, a year after the North - which uses a different system to render Korean into English and transliterates it as ssirum.

The rival applications will come up for consideration at a Unesco meeting in Mauritius this week.

But propelled by a rapid diplomatic thaw on the peninsula, there is speculation of a first joint inscription.

In a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Paris last month, Unesco director-general Audrey Azoulay suggested the requests be combined.

Mr Moon has long backed engagement with the nuclear-armed North to bring it to the negotiating table, and Seoul welcomed the idea.

"It would create new opportunities for further inter-Korean cooperation on cultural heritage," the Cultural Heritage Administration said in a statement to AFP.

Pyongyang has yet to make an official comment.

Ssireum is among the oldest surviving sports in Korea, with fourth century murals from the Goguryeo dynasty depicting men grappling with each other in the traditional game.

A ssireum match has some similarities to Japanese sumo but begins with two wrestlers facing each other on their knees in a sandpit ring, holding onto a cloth sash tied around the waist and using their strength and technique to knock the opponent to the ground.

The sport has been part of village festivals for centuries and nationwide competitions are still held every Chuseok - the Korean harvest festival - on either side of the border.

"A joint inscription would establish a sense of homogeneity or a single identity between the South and North," said Dr Kim Dong-sun, a professor of sports science at Kyonggi University.

In the North, ssirum's development was a priority for late founder Kim Il Sung, who personally set up a special department dedicated to the sport in 1946, according to documents submitted to Unesco by Pyongyang.

South Korea spends more than US$1 million (S$1.37 million) annually for its preservation, despite dwindling popularity.

Ssireum thrived in the mid-1980s under authoritarian president Chun Doo-hwan, who sought to stabilise political unrest by diverting public attention with sports.

Major televised matches captured more than half the viewing audience.

But professional teams - sponsored by major conglomerates such as Samsung - have since disbanded, and last week a national ssireum competition saw only a handful of spectators scattered in a gymnasium in Andong.

Mr Chung In-kil, director-general of the South's Korea Ssireum Association, said that a joint inscription would facilitate exchanges with Pyongyang, which would be a boon for ongoing efforts to revitalise the little-watched sport.

There has been only one inter-Korean ssireum competition, on the South's Jeju island in 2003 under the liberal Roh Moo-hyun government.

An agreement to make it a regular event fell through after conservative administrations were elected in the South with a tougher stance against the North.

Mr Chung revealed plans to invite North Korean wrestlers to Seoul next month.

But the Koreas' decades-long division has seen some differences emerge in their rules and styles.

In the South, the wrestlers are topless and only wear tight shorts, while in the North they don sleeveless jackets. Southern matches are held on sand while the North uses a round mattress.

The logistics can be adjusted simply but the Southerners would win easily, said Mr Kim Tae-woo, a coach who attended the 2003 joint event, given the considerable difference between them.

"At that time, their skill level was that of a very good high school wrestler in the South," he said at the event in Andong, some 190km south of Seoul.

South Korean competitors welcomed the prospect. "It's a national sport so it would be appropriate for North and South to do it together," said Mr Kim Hyang-sik, 31. "But I do think we will win for sure."