Antonio Inoki attends KWP celebrations

According to the Wall Street Journal blog:

During television coverage Monday of the 65th anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, the camera zoomed in on a familiar, long-chinned face among the dignitaries: Antonio Inoki, a popular Japanese ex-professional wrestler, former Upper House politician and star of numerous TV commercials.

Whippersnapper JRT readers may be wondering who Mr. Inoki is, but veteran sports fans might well remember his infamous matchup with Muhammed Ali in Tokyo in 1976, a boxing-versus-wrestling bout that was billed as ‘The War of the Worlds’ but ended in low farce.

What on earth was he doing in North Korea? At Kim Jong-Il’s big day out?

Fact is, this wasn’t his first visit. According to the Asahi Shimbun, 67-year old Mr. Inoki has visited North Korea 21 times, with his latest trip coming after a ‘strong request’ from Pyongyang that he attend the celebrations on Monday.

Mr. Inoki, whose real name is Kanji Inoki, is wildly popular in the hermit kingdom for being the protégé of Rikidozan, a legendary sumo wrestler originally from Korea, and seen as the founder of professional wrestling in Japan. The country has released a postage stamp bearing Mr. Inoki’s likeness, and in 1995 he battled ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair at a two-day ‘Wrestling for Peace’ event in Pyongyang in front of a reported 190,000 people.

These days his visits tend to be for more sedate reasons, such as attending film festivals, and in September he received the ‘Order of DPRK Friendship 1st Class’ from the North Korean government. This Japanese TV report shows some of the highlights of his six-day trip in September, including a tour of some of the sights.

Mr. Inoki’s visits to Pyongyang may seem surprising amid the general distrust between Japan and North Korea, especially as public opinion at home is dominated by issues such as the abduction of Japanese citizens for the training of North Korean spies. But although the Japanese media faithfully reports on Mr. Inoki’s comings and goings, his trips appear to draw little criticism in his home country.

Indeed, somewhat bizarrely, he has become a source of information on current thinking in the notoriously guarded regime. On his return from Pyongyang in September, Mr. Inoki told waiting reporters—correctly– that the Workers’ Party conference would likely be held between late September and early October. Meanwhile, while changing planes in Beijing Tuesday after his most recent trip, Mr. Inoki briefed journalists on his conversation with a senior North Korean official, who told him that the regime was puzzled by Japan’s constant change of leadership.

Could he be working behind the scenes in an effort to improve relations between the two countries? Calls to Mr. Inoki himself went unanswered Tuesday, but his frequent trips to Pyongyang and warm reception suggest he is one of the few Japanese to have the ear of the regime.

The Japanese government’s official position on North Korea is that it aims to “normalize relations…in a manner that would contribute to the peace and stability of the Northeast Asian region.” A Japanese MOFA official declined to comment on the effect of Mr. Inoki’s trips to North Korea, citing the ministry’s policy of not commenting on trips made by private citizens.

Indeed, this is not the first time Mr. Inoki has tried his hand at go-it-alone diplomacy. In late 1990, during the early stages of the first Gulf War, he visited Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in a successful bid to secure the release of Japanese citizens being held in the country.

Read the full story here:
Antonio Inoki: Wrestling North Korea to Diplomacy?
Wall Street Journal Blog
Andrew Joyce


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