Koreas may unite for Unesco listing

Ssireum wrestlers preparing to compete during the Korea Open Ssireum Festival last Monday in Andong, 190km south of Seoul. In South Korea, the wrestlers have their matches on sand, while in the North they use a round mattress.
Ssireum wrestlers preparing to compete during the Korea Open Ssireum Festival last Monday in Andong, 190km south of Seoul. In South Korea, the wrestlers have their matches on sand, while in the North they use a round mattress.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

South welcomes idea of joint inscription for Korean wrestling instead of making rival requests

ANDONG (South Korea) • North and South Korea have long grappled over their joint symbols at 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 1950-1953 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.

  • What is ssireum?

  • 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 Mr Kim Dong-sun, a professor of sports science at Kyonggi University.

    In the North, the development of ssirum - its English spelling there - was a priority for late founder Kim Il Sung, who set up a special department for the sport in 1946, according to documents Pyongyang submitted to Unesco.

    South Korea spends more than US$1 million (S$1.4 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.


But for the 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 that 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-Korea cooperation on cultural heritage," the Cultural Heritage Administration said in a statement.

Pyongyang has yet to make an official comment.

Mr Chung In-kil, director-general of the South's Korea Ssireum Association, said 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-Korea 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.


It would create new opportunities for further inter-Korea cooperation on cultural heritage.

'' SOUTH KOREA'S CULTURAL HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION, on a joint Unesco inscription with North Korea for traditional Korean wrestling.

In the South, the wrestlers are topless and wear only 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 last week at a national ssireum competition 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."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 26, 2018, with the headline 'Koreas may unite for Unesco listing'. Print Edition | Subscribe