A Solid Decision: North and South Korea Win Joint Bid for UNESCO Recognition of Traditional Wrestling Culture

Ssireum at the Gangneung Dano Festival in South Korea
Ssireum at the Gangneung Dano Festival in South Korea / Korean Ssireum Association, UNESCO

North Korea and South Korea have come together in an unprecedented collaboration over a shared passion: wrestling. The two countries recently made a joint bid for traditional Korean wrestling—called ssireum or ssirum—to be recognized in UNESCO's List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, according to The Guardian.

Initially, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) entered two different bids for UNESCO to recognize their form of wrestling as a cultural treasure. The South Korean application called the practice ssireum, while the North Korean application called it ssirum, but the practice they described was the same. Well-known on both sides of the Korean peninsula, ssireum/ssirum involves two wrestlers who use long fabric belts to try to force their opponent to the ground.

Because of this, UNESCO's director general, Audrey Azoulay, convinced the two countries to combine their applications into a single joint bid, which was accepted on November 26. It's now listed on the Intangible Cultural Heritage site as "Traditional Korean wrestling (Ssirum/Ssireum)," with descriptions from both the North and South Korean bids.

While the Korean peninsula has been split into two sovereign countries since the end of World War II, North and South Korea have more than a millennia of shared cultural and political history dating back to the creation of the first unified Korean state in the 7th century. As a result, there are plenty of cultural mainstays common to the two countries, and North and South Korea have submitted similar bids to the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage before, including ones regarding kimchi. "Kimjang, making and sharing kimchi in the Republic of Korea" and "Tradition of kimchi-making in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea" were granted cultural heritage status separately (in 2013 and 2015), for instance. While it's not uncommon for countries in the same region to submit joint bids, this is the first time North and South Korea have agreed to do so.

[h/t The Guardian]