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Koreas make historic bid for ‘ssireum’ as 1st jointly held UNESCO world heritage item

South and North Korea have officially made a joint bid to inscribe the traditional form of wrestling known as “ssireum” on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural assets. It represents the first joint UNESCO bid in history for the two Koreas.

According to the South Korean government, Seoul and Pyongyang agreed to combine their separate bids for the 13th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which takes place Monday through Saturday in Port Louis, Mauritius.

The official name of the proposed world heritage item is “Traditional Korean Wrestling (Ssirum/Ssireum),” with the North’s transcription appearing first.

Ssireum (Yonhap)
Ssireum (Yonhap)

While a decision is expected later today, it is highly likely that the sport will be included on the UNESCO list since UNESCO’s evaluation body recommended its inscription last month. The evaluations and recommendations were made separately for both Koreas’ bids.

If the inscription goes ahead as hoped, it will bring the number of South Korean intangible assets on the UNESCO list to 20 and North Korean assets to three.

The two Koreas made separate bids for ssireum -- Seoul in 2016, Pyongyang in 2015 and again in 2017 -- and had been seeking to make the sport their first joint item on the list of cultural assets that reflect humanity’s intangible cultural heritage this year.

Seoul suggested a joint bid to the North in the first half of this year and the two sides had been in discussions when, last month, UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay suggested to South Korean President Moon Jae-in that the two Koreas combine their applications.

Azoulay was recently quoted in the Guardian newspaper as applauding the unprecedented move.

South Korean cultural assets such as falconry, games and tugging rituals have already been added to the list after joint bids with other countries, but those were joint bids from the start.

The Korean traditional folk song “Arirang” and the tradition of making kimchi, known as “kimjang,” are currently inscribed on the list separately under the names of both South Korea and North Korea.

The Foreign Ministry said it was “not impossible” that “Arirang” and kimjang could be re-inscribed under the names of both Koreas. “We need further deliberations to see if such a process would be worthwhile, and we also need (to hold) discussions with UNESCO,” the official said.

Ssireum, which dates back to the Three Kingdoms era (52 BC-AD 680) when the peninsula consisted of the Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje kingdoms, is a form of wrestling in which the loser is the first person to have a body part other than the feet touch the ground. The players grab each other’s “satba” -- fabric belts worn around their waists -- and try to bring each other down with maneuvers such as tackling, lifting or pushing.

Ssireum was a popular pastime and sport throughout Korea’s history, with records showing that King Gongmin of Goryeo sometimes recruited ssireum champions -- called “jangsa,” which means a very strong person -- as his bodyguards. The most common prize for a ssireum champion in Joseon times was a bull, a prized asset in the agricultural society.

In the 1980s, ssireum reinvented itself into a professional-league sport, producing superstars such as Lee Man-ki and Kang Ho-dong, who led its heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Because the players are big and strong, some ssireum champions have thrived in other fields, such as mixed martial arts. This include “Techno Goliath” Choi Hong-man, whose most notable fights in K-1 include a win against Bob Sapp and a somewhat controversial win against Semmy Schilt. But the best-known former ssireum fighter to this day is still Kang, who switched to comedy after retiring from the sport in the 1990s and is now one of South Korea’s most popular TV personalities.

However, the retirement of the two legends Lee and Kang caused ssireum to wane in popularity and resulted in the dissolution of the professional league. It is now practiced at the semi-professional level. 

By Yoon Min-sik