A rare two-day pro wrestling event in North Korea ended Sunday without an appearance by the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, but Diet member Antonio Inoki, who co-hosted the extravaganza, said he was satisfied that it contributed to closer relations.
“My ideal is to realize world peace though sports exchanges,” Inoki said after the exhibition in a gymnasium that was packed with about 15,000 North Koreans, many of whom had never before seen a pro wrestling match.
Jang Ung, a member of the International Olympic Committee and the North Korean co-organizer of the event, said it has “left us with an unforgettable memory, and contributed to international sports exchanges and strengthening of bonds (between the two countries).”
The spectators enjoyed the exhibition, also featuring martial arts demonstrations, along with more than 50 Japanese tourists after Japan in July allowed freer travel to and from North Korea, a country with which it has never had diplomatic relations.
Major interest focused on whether Kim, who has an avid interest in sports, would attend the event organized by Inoki, a pro wrestler before he turned to politics, and by North Korean authorities, amid signs of a thaw in relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang.
But Kim did not, unlike in January when Dennis Rodman and a team of other former NBA players played an exhibition game in Pyongyang for his birthday.
Still, the show in the Ryugyong Jong Ju Yong Gymnasium, bringing together 21 pro wrestlers from Japan, Brazil, China, France and the United States, was widely reported by North Korea’s official media.
North Korea also gave a warm reception to the 71-year-old Inoki.
Ahead of the event, he was granted separate meetings with Kim Yong Nam, the ceremonial head of state, and Kang Sok Ju, a secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea who has a dominant role in the country’s foreign affairs.
Inoki, on his 30th visit to North Korea since 1994, was not representing the Japanese government. A member of the small opposition party Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), he believes that his sports diplomacy can play an important part in improving relations between the two countries.
“I feel very grateful for your continuous efforts to promote mutual understanding between the two countries and create an environment toward improvement in Korea-Japan relations,” the 86-year-old Kim, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea, told Inoki on Saturday.
In early July, Japan partially lifted its unilateral sanctions against North Korea in return for Pyongyang opening a new investigation into the whereabouts of at least 12 Japanese citizens abducted decades ago.
The event, dubbed the International Pro Wrestling Festival, was held just weeks before North Korea has promised to release its first report on its new findings regarding abductions, though signs are emerging this may be delayed.