Heading to Pyongyang, Japanese ex-wrestler hopes to win over North Korea

It might not be the Rumble in the Jungle or at King of the Ring level, but an international pro-wrestling tournament set for the end of the month is sure to stand out as a historic event: It is taking place in Pyongyang.

At least 21 fighters will battle it out in the North Korean capital in an event organized by Antonio Inoki, a former wrestling star turned Japanese politician, who hopes the tournament will help ease international tensions with Kim Jong Un’s regime.

“Sports events bring people together,” Inoki said. “That’s what I’ve been saying for a long time.” Now 71 and retired from the ring, the lantern-jawed, 6-foot-3 Inoki nevertheless is still instantly recognizable among Japanese. He is perhaps best known among Americans for a strange 1976 match in Tokyo against Muhammad Ali — a fight considered a precursor to mixed martial arts — that ended in a lackluster draw.

“This is sports entertainment. Olympic games are a competition between countries, but here spectators can freely choose which star to cheer for and unite as one,” said Inoki, a lawmaker in Japan’s upper house who was known as “Burning Fighting Spirit” in the ring. Speaking in an interview in his parliamentary office, he wore his trademark red scarf — a remnant from his wrestling days — despite the summer heat.

The wrestlers heading to Pyongyang for the Aug. 30-31 event, which will incorporate the Korean and Japanese martial arts taekwondo and aikido as well as pro wrestling, will include three Americans.

Japanese pro wrestler Antonio Inoki kicks the back of Muhammad Ali’s leg during their boxing wrestling bout on June 26, 1976 at the Budokan Hall in Tokyo. The fight ended in a draw. (AP)

They are Bob Sapp, who has achieved a certain level of fame in Japan; Bobby Lashley, the world heavyweight champion in “Total Nonstop Action Wrestling”; and Eric Hammer. Wrestlers from Japan (including four women), Brazil, France, China and the Netherlands are also attending, according to Inoki.

The event comes six months after Dennis Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters made international headlines, few of them positive, while holding a basketball tournament in Pyongyang. Rodman sat courtside with Kim and later partied with the North Korean leader, even singing happy birthday to him.

That trip was widely criticized in the United States for sending the wrong message to Kim, a sworn enemy of Washington whom Rodman called a “friend for life.”

The Obama administration has been practicing “strategic patience” with Pyongyang, trying to wait out Kim and his cronies rather than becoming sucked into another round of negotiations in which North Korea promises to move toward denuclearization, extracts rewards from the outside world, then returns to its atomic antics.

While Kim’s regime has not carried out a fourth nuclear test, as feared, it has been conducting provocative missile launches and unleashing a stream of anti-American invective that is colorful even by North Korean standards.

But in Tokyo, the wrestling event is not creating the sorts of waves that Rodman’s trip caused in Washington. In fact, it could even be helpful.

Inoki, whose ties with North Korea date back to his being mentored by Rikidozan, an ethnic Korean wrestler, organized a similar tournament, called “Collision in Korea,” in 1995. His trip next week will mark his 30 th visit to Pyongyang.

Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a hard-liner who has taken a tough stance against North Korea, has been trying to make progress on a decades-old abduction issue.

At least 17 Japanese citizens were abducted during the 1970s and 1980s to train North Korean spies in the Japanese language and ways. While Pyongyang admitted seizing the Japanese nationals and let five of them return home in 2002, it has claimed that the others died in North Korea.

But now Kim’s regime has agreed to open a new investigation into their fate, and Japanese officials are cautiously hopeful that some abductees might still be alive and might be returned. North Korea’s first report from the investigation panel is due next month, and Abe’s government last month lifted some sanctions as a gesture of goodwill.

Inoki, who entered politics by creating his own “Sports and Peace Party” and has long advocated an approach of “world peace through sports,” fancies himself as Japan’s unofficial point-man.

In this case, he has something of a track record.

In 1990, just a year after he was elected to parliament, more than 100 Japanese citizens were taken hostage by Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, to be used as human shields against the imminent onset of the Persian Gulf War.

On his own accord, Inoki went to Iraq several times, before organizing a “peace festival” incorporating pro wrestling, karate and judo in Baghdad. A few days later, all the remaining hostages were freed (although the Japanese Foreign Ministry was also negotiating for their release).

While saying that he is not going to Pyongyang to press the abduction issue, Inoki clearly sees himself as having some sway on the matter and says he is urging officials dealing with North Korea on the investigation to go with him.

Although some in Tokyo think Inoki is just interested in self-promotion, or is wasting his time, the former wrestler dismisses the criticism.

“A character like me is rare,” he said. “I say, ‘I don’t care!’ Courage is essential. It’s important to gain support from your own people, but you need to move half, or one step ahead of everyone. . . . Someday, someone will recognize that I have acted with goodwill.”

But whether Kim will respond to Inoki’s sporting outreach, as Hussein did back in 1990, remains to be seen.

North Korea seems impervious to “soft power” — the idea that countries can get what they want through attraction rather than coercion or force — said the father of the concept, Harvard scholar Joseph Nye.

“When it comes to North Korea, I tend to be a little bit skeptical about these sorts of things,” Nye said, recalling the much-heralded trip that the New York Philharmonic made to Pyongyang in 2008, which did nothing for U.S.-North Korea relations.

“There were various things in American culture that Kim Jong Il enjoyed,” he said, referring to the late North Korean leader, who died in 2011. “But he wasn’t going to change his nuclear weapons preferences just because of the New York Philharmonic or because he surreptitiously watched a Hollywood movie.”

However, cultural exchanges such as musical and sporting visits could be seen as symbolic and sending a signal of goodwill, Nye said.

Rodman could not make basketball fan Kim Jong Un friendlier to the United States, but can Inoki help accelerate the modest thaw between North Korea and Japan?

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Heading to Pyongyang, Japanese ex-wrestler hopes to win over North Korea
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