BEIJING/PYONGYANG – Japanese wrestler-turned-parliamentarian Antonio Inoki arrived Thursday in North Korea, with a plan to meet with senior officials at a time of escalating tensions.
The visit by Inoki, an independent lawmaker, comes as North Korea conducted what appears to be another nuclear test, prompting criticism from Japan and other countries.
Inoki has said his trip is timed to coincide with the 68th anniversary of North Korea’s founding on Friday and the main purpose is to promote sports exchanges.
The 73-year-old former pro-wrestling star, whose real first name is Kanji, has also said he plans to meet with “various” officials during his stay in Pyongyang through Tuesday.
“I have nothing to tell them. That is something the government does,” he told reporters before completing check-in procedures at Beijing’s international airport. “But I have been doing sports exchanges and it is my long-standing belief that the door of (North Korea) has to be kept open somewhere.”
Inoki said he is not representing the Japanese government but is expecting to have “frank” discussions with North Korean officials when they dine together.
When Inoki arrived at Pyongyang’s airport, he was received by Ma Chol Su, secretary-general of the country’s friendship association with Japan.
Kenta Matsunami, a member of the opposition party Nippon Ishin no Kai, is traveling with Inoki.
Inoki, a House of Councilors member, has visited North Korea around 30 times and developed special connections with authorities there, although Tokyo and Pyongyang have never had diplomatic relations.
He last visited North Korea about two years ago and co-hosted a two-day wrestling event in Pyongyang. At that time, he held talks twice with Kang Sok Ju, a seasoned diplomat who died in May this year after playing a pivotal role for many years in North Korea’s foreign affairs.
North Korea has been under multiple U.N. sanctions and resolutions banning it from testing nuclear and missile technologies.
However, it again fired three ballistic missiles on Monday, which flew around 1,000 kilometers before landing in waters near Japan.
The U.N. Security Council strongly condemned North Korea’s latest action, which took place as leaders of the Group of 20 major economies were attending their summit in the Chinese city of Hangzhou.
In a statement, the United Nations’ most powerful body said its members had agreed to “closely monitor the situation and take further significant measures” if North Korea continues with nuclear and missile tests.
Nevertheless, a spokesman for North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that Pyongyang “categorically rejects this as an intolerable act of encroaching upon its dignity, right to existence, sovereignty and right to self-defense.”
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