Two Koreas may register traditional wrestling jointly with Unesco

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Two Koreas may register traditional wrestling jointly with Unesco

ANDONG, North Gyeongsang - North and South Korea have long grappled over their joint symbols at the United Nations culture organization 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 recognized in 2012, followed by the North’s two years later.

“The South and North are registered with Unesco as different countries, 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 the sport 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. Moon has long backed engagement with the nuclear-armed North to bring it to the negotiating table, and Seoul too 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 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 $1 million annually for its preservation, despite dwindling popularity.


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