TOKYO – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may have found a new friend for life.
Hot on the heels of former NBA star Dennis Rodman’s basketball antics in Pyongyang on the young leader’s birthday, a Japanese pro wrestling legend turned politician is planning to entertain the North Korean capital with a martial arts extravaganza next month – and hopefully meet some senior leaders while he is there.
Kanji “Antonio” Inoki was to leave for Pyongyang on Wednesday to set the final details for the Aug. 30-31 event, which organizers say will feature pro wrestling, taekwondo, the Japanese martial art aikido and a traditional Korean style of wrestling.
Like Rodman, who said he and Kim were friends for life even though his trip to Pyongyang in January was a public-relations disaster, Inoki is both a savvy showman and charismatically eccentric. For a politician – he’s serving his third term in Japan’s parliament – he is also famously fond of being politically incorrect.
During the Gulf War, Inoki organized a pro wrestling show in Iraq and he has visited North Korea nearly 30 times. His proactive position on Pyongyang ties has gotten him in trouble before. He was suspended in parliament last year for 30 days after making an unauthorized trip to the North.
Government officials are not expected to protest his current plans, however.
Though he is a household name in Japan, the square-jawed, 6-foot-3 Inoki is probably best remembered elsewhere for fighting Muhammad Ali in Tokyo in 1976, though he spent much of the bout on his back kicking at Ali’s legs. Inoki was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2010. He retired from the ring in 1998.
If all goes as planned, this will be the second time Inoki has helped arrange a pro-wrestling show in Pyongyang – and the first was a huge success.
In 1995, Inoki fought American Ric Flair in what was called the “Collision in Korea.” That two-day event, held in Pyongyang’s huge May Day Stadium, drew a reported 380,000 spectators and was the biggest pay-per-view in pro-wrestling history. Ali was among the guest attendees.
Tokyo has cut off virtually all official ties with Pyongyang since 2006 over its nuclear weapons program and other issues, but Inoki runs a non-profit that opened an office in Pyongyang last year to promote international sports exchange. His connection to North Korea comes from his mentor, Rikidozan, a postwar wrestling legend in Japan who was born in the North.
Last week, Tokyo announced it was lifting some unilateral sanctions after the North agreed to revive a probe into the fates of at least a dozen Japanese who were abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 80s. Though Tokyo will continue to enforce UN sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear program, the breakthrough on the abductions issue is expected to allow more contact between the countries.
About 20 wrestlers and martial artists are expected to attend, although organizers have not announced their names or nationalities. Organizers say the International Pro-Wrestling Festival in Pyongyang will likely be broadcast over the Internet. It is to be held at Pyongyang’s Chung Ju-yung Stadium, which has a capacity of 15,000.
Inoki, who is 71, told reporters on Monday that while in Pyongyang for the event he hopes to meet with senior North Korean officials. It remains to be seen whether Kim himself will be among the spectators.
The event would be the biggest sports show with a marquee foreigner since Rodman and a team of other former NBA players and streetballers took to the basketball court in Pyongyang’s Indoor Stadium in January.
Rodman dedicated the game to his “best friend” Kim, who along with his wife and other senior officials and their wives watched from a special seating area. The capacity crowd of about 14,000 clapped loudly as Rodman sang a verse from the birthday song and then bowed deeply to Kim, seated above him in the stands.
Rodman called the event “historic,” but he was widely criticized by members of the U.S. Congress, the NBA and human rights groups who said he had become a public relations tool for North Korea’s government. Rodman apologized publicly for his conduct while in North Korea, and entered rehab soon after his return to the United States.