PARIS – North and South Korea marked a new step in their reconciliation efforts Monday as UNESCO accepted a joint bid for Korean wrestling to be recognized as one of the world’s most treasured cultural practices.
The two Koreas had originally filed separate applications for their traditional form of wrestling to be recognized on the U.N. agency’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
“The fact that both Koreas accepted to join their respective applications is unprecedented,” UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay said in a statement.
“The joint inscription marks a highly symbolic step on the road to inter-Korean reconciliation,” she added.
The announcement is the latest in a string of symbolic gestures between Seoul and its nuclear-armed neighbor in recent months.
Last week the two announced that they had connected a road across their shared border for the first time in 14 years, while earlier this month the South gave the North hundreds of tons of tangerines in exchange for mushrooms.
Annual joint military exercises between South Korea and its ally the United States have been scaled down for spring 2019 to avoid undoing diplomatic advances to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula.
The South’s dovish president, Moon Jae-in, has long favored engagement with the North, which is subject to U.N. sanctions over its nuclear activities.
Moon has dangled large investment and joint cross-border projects as incentives for steps toward denuclearization, although the U.S. favors a tougher approach until Pyongyang fully dismantles its weapons programs.
The bid for recognition on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list — which is separate from its list of World Heritage sites — was approved at a meeting in Mauritius.
Successful applications are largely symbolic but can serve to raise the profile of winning countries and their cultural practices.
Known as Ssirum in North Korea and Sssireum in the South — each uses a different system to render the language into English — wrestling has been a feature of village festivals for centuries.
The sport has some similarities to Japanese sumo but begins with two wrestlers facing each other on their knees in a pit, holding onto a cloth sash tied around the waist and using their strength and technique to knock their opponent to the ground.
In the South, wrestlers are topless and only wear tight shorts, while in the North they don sleeveless jackets.
Southern matches are held on sand while the North uses a round mattress.
There has only been one inter-Korean wrestling competition, on the South’s Jeju Island, in 2003.
Until now, North and South Korea have always submitted separate bids for recognition on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
South Korea added its tradition of making kimchi 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.
For wrestling, the South applied in 2016, a year after the North.
But at a meeting with Moon in Paris last month, Azoulay suggested the requests be combined, and the idea was also taken up with North Korean officials.
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.
The border area, 4 kilometers wide and 248 kilometers long and known as the Demilitarized Zone, has become something of a nature reserve due to the lack of human activity.
UNESCO has suggested it could be designated as a special natural biosphere under a similar joint initiative.
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