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Resurrection of ssireum, traditional Korean wrestling

A painting by Joseon-era artist Kim Hong-do depicts ssireum. (National Museum of Korea)
A painting by Joseon-era artist Kim Hong-do depicts ssireum. (National Museum of Korea)

Korea Ssireum Association is holding a tournament during the Lunar New Year holidays in Hongseong, South Chungcheong Province from Wednesday to Monday, with the organizers expecting more spectators than usual on the back of the recent resurgence in popularity of Korean traditional wrestling.

“We have been holding a ssireum tournament during the Lunar New Year holidays every year in different cities of Korea. Last year the stadium in Jeongeup was nearly full and we are expecting more this year,” Kim Yoon-hyuk, a Korea Ssireum Association official told The Korea Herald.

The arena for ssireum, which dates back to the Three Kingdoms period, is a sandpit. The players each wear different colored long fabric belts around their waists and thighs. The players grip each other’s belt and fight to topple their adversary.

In 2018, ssireum was inscribed on the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list.

“Ssireum’s inscription was meaningful because it was the result of first joint UNESCO bid in history by the two Koreas,” a Cultural Heritage Administration official told The Korea Herald.

The sport’s brief renaissance happened back in the 1980s with star players like Lee Man-gi and Kang Ho-dong. The traditional sport, however, slowly lost its popularity and gave way to modern sports. Today Lee and Kang are popular entertainers.

Then, ssireum captured the public’s eye last year. More accurately, perhaps, ssireum players caught young people’s attention.

“At the beginning of last year, we created a YouTube channel and started posting some of the promotional videos that we made in 2017,” Korea Ssireum Association’s Kim said. “The match between players Heo Sun-hang and Park Jung-woo went viral.”

The association’s YouTube channel has over 283,000 subscribers as of Wednesday.

“Before watching the YouTube video clips, I was not keen on watching ssireum matches because I thought that all players were bulky and over-the-top like former ssireum player and comedian Kang Ho-dong. It was surprising to see the boy-next-door type of players,” said Kim Yoon-jin, 29.

New and young ssireum fans like Kim started calling some of the players “ssireumdol,” which is a combination of two words -- ssireum and K-pop idol.

A lucrative commercial endorsement deal signals that you have made it and ssireum player Park Jung-woo got that endorsement when Lotte Foods signed him on to model for “Uisen Garlic Dumplings” last November.

KBS new weekly entertainment variety program “Joy of Ssireum” (KBS)
KBS new weekly entertainment variety program “Joy of Ssireum” (KBS)

Even a major broadcaster has joined the bandwagon. KBS on Nov. 30 launched a new weekly entertainment variety program called “Joy of Ssireum.”

The ssireum association says that it is planning more aggressive promotion to further bolster the sport’s presence in 2020.

The association is preparing a ranking system, which provides players’ detailed profiles and information about teams.

Korea Ssireum Association is also looking to commission the music to be played when each player enters the ground that would reflect their unique image.

“We will reflect the player’s own musical tastes when creating their music. We are considering all different music genres including hip-hop, pop, jazz and trot,” Kim of the ssireum association said.

As for global promotion of ssireum, the association said it is mainly conducting exchange programs in different countries.

“So far we have visited countries such as Vietnam, Laos and Kazakhstan,” Kim said.” During the program, we open ssireum classes, participate in local wresting competitions and hold some demonstration sessions.”

Although it is still in the early stage, the association also added that it established the International Ssireum Federation in September last year to more actively promote the sport worldwide.

In December, the association launched an English-language website to promote the sport globally. The English website is currently closed for minor adjustments.

By Song Seung-hyun (