PYONGYANG – Wrestler-turned-lawmaker Antonio Inoki on Thursday arrived in Pyongyang to prepare for a martial arts extravaganza next month and said he plans to express his “true opinions” to North Korean officials amid signs of improvement in bilateral relations.
The former professional wrestling star said he hopes to meet with veteran North Korean bureaucrat Kang Sok Ju, who has a strong influence on foreign policy, and other senior officials in the ruling Korean Workers’ Party. He also hopes to visit the reclusive country’s sports facilities during his stay through Monday.
“We have to prevent (the situation) from turning back,” the 71-year-old House of Councilors member from Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) told reporters at Beijing’s international airport before heading to the North Korean capital.
His trip, which involves five other opposition lawmakers, comes a week after the Japanese government decided to ease unilateral sanctions on North Korea in return for its decision to reopen a probe into the whereabouts of Japanese who were abducted by North Korean spies decades ago.
Inoki, who has developed close ties with North Korean officials over many visits, said that having frank talks can help improve bilateral relations.
“We have no intention of getting in the way of what the Japanese government is doing right now,” he said. “If the situation turns back, we won’t again be able to negotiate (with the North) for 10 years.”
This is Inoki’s 29th visit to North Korea, which has never had diplomatic relations with Japan.
The politician, whose real name is Kanji Inoki, last visited in January. His latest trip will take place a day after the North again launched two short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Inoki’s connections with Pyongyang stem in part from being a disciple of Rikidozan, a postwar wrestling legend in Japan who hailed from an area that is now part of North Korea.
Inoki said Monday that the two-day International Pro-Wrestling Festival in Pyongyang will be held from Aug. 30 to 31.
About 20 wrestlers and martial artists from countries including Japan, the Netherlands and the United States are expected to take part in the show, which will also feature demonstrations of aikido and taekwondo in a stadium capable of seating 20,000 spectators.
A similar two-day wrestling event Inoki organized in 1995 in Pyongyang’s huge May Day Stadium, which is being renovated, attracted about 380,000 spectators.