Former pro wrestler Antonio Inoki hopes his vision of “sports diplomacy” can repair Japan’s fraught relationship with North Korea as he prepares to host an extraordinary sporting event in Pyongyang.
And Inoki, now a Diet member, has some chops: He helped secure the release of Japanese hostages in Iraq in 1990 after impressing tyrant Saddam Hussein, and more recently used his old bouts with Pakistani wrestlers to foster goodwill between the South Asian country and his own.
Standing 1.9 meters tall, with a square jaw and a penchant for red scarves, Inoki is instantly recognizable on Japanese television but is best known abroad for taking on world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali in a zany wrestler-versus-boxer match in Tokyo in 1976.
The grappler also organized and competed in a 1995 event in Pyongyang called the Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace. It featured bouts between Japanese and American professional wrestlers for the first time in the reclusive country, with an ailing Ali as a guest.
Inoki’s latest venture will bring 21 combatants from Japan, the United States, France, Brazil and China to the International Pro Wrestling Festival at the North Korean capital’s 20,000-seat Ryugyong Chung Ju-yung Stadium next Saturday and Sunday.
Competitors will include American Bob Sapp and Frenchman Jerome Le Banner, according to Inoki’s office, which will co-host the event with North Korean authorities. It will also feature sideshows in the Korean combat sport of taekwondo and other martial arts.
“We have basically and always aimed to create as favorable an environment as possible” for bilateral ties, said Inoki, who has visited Pyongyang 29 times since 1974 to build connections with North Korea, the birthplace of his late wrestling mentor, known by the ring name of Rikidozan.
Inoki said in-depth government-level talks should be held “as soon as possible” and that he believes “the best solution is that Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe visits” the country.
The sports event was announced last month, days after Tokyo revoked some unilateral sanctions, including curbs on travel, against the isolated state as a reward for its decision to relaunch a probe into the fate of Japanese kidnapped by North Korean agents.
After the travel ban was eased, Inoki led a group of lawmakers on a visit to the North and talked with officials on ways to solve the abduction issue and promote exchanges.
North Korea is expected to make the results of the probe public in September, amid rumors that Abe will visit Pyongyang if the communist state makes a major announcement.
For Inoki, the ability of sports to transcend nationality and ideology make it especially suitable as a catalyst for greater cooperation on sensitive issues with the secretive nation.
“Sports is something that cannot be rejected even in a closed society,” said the politician, 71, who retired from wrestling in 1998 and has been elected twice to the Diet since 1989. “I think people over there keep some of their doors open through sports.”
His unique approach made headlines in 1990 when he helped secure the release of 41 Japanese hostages in Iraq during the Gulf War after meeting President Saddam Hussein’s son and staging a wrestling show in Baghdad.
Inoki converted to Islam the same year, taking the name Muhammad Hussain during the hostage-rescue visit as he had been reportedly advised that being Muslim would be helpful for his contact with Iraqi leaders.
“I have not yet become a full-fledged Muslim. I drink alcohol once in a while and I do not have four wives yet,” he told the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan last August.
Elsewhere, he fought Pakistani wrestler and national hero Akram Pehlwan in Karachi in 1976 and has since tried hard to promote bilateral relations with Pakistan, leading a team of Japanese grapplers in late 2012 to an international wrestling event in troubled Peshawar that was once again aimed at promoting peace.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has a keen interest in sports. Since he assumed power in 2011 he has built up a surprising, and at times controversial, friendship with eccentric former U.S. basketball star Dennis Rodman.
Inoki will be hosted in Pyongyang by Kang Sok Ju, a seasoned diplomat and Workers’ Party secretary seen as a trusted aide to Kim. He also served his late father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who founded the communist dynasty.
But the wrestler, like Rodman, is accused of naivete by critics who say the flamboyant welcome that sports stars receive belies evidence of rampant rights abuses and zero tolerance for political dissent.