by STEVE HAN
Hoping to “ease tensions” between North Korea and Japan, wrestler-turned-politician Antonio Inoki is organizing an international pro-wrestling tournament at the end of the month in Pyongyang, reports The Washington Post.
The most notable participant is American pro-wrestler and former mixed martial artist Bob Sapp, who’s popular in South Korea for fighting Choi Hong-man in 2005. At least 21 fighters around the world will head to Pyongyang for the event, including Eric Hammer, Bobby Lashley and wrestlers from Japan, Brazil, France, China and the Netherlands, according to Inoki.
“Sports events bring people together,” Inoki, a 71-year-old who achieved fame by fighting the likes of Muhammad Ali and Hulk Hogan, told The Post. “That’s what I’ve been saying for a long time. This is sports entertainment. Olympic Games are a competition between countries, but here spectators can freely choose which star to cheer for and unite as one.”
The 6-foot-3 Inoki is now a lawmaker in Japan’s upper house, but still wears his trademark red scarf from his wrestling days. He added that the event, which will incorporate techniques of Korea’s taekwondo and Japan’s aikido as well as pro-wrestling, will help ease the strained relations between North Korea and the rest of the world.
Inoki’s relationship with North Korea began in 1995 when he hosted a tournament in there that was also meant to smooth relations between countries. He was inspired by his mentor and the late Korean Japanese pro-wrestler Rikidozan, better known among Koreans as Yeokdosan. His trip next week will be his 30th visit to Pyongyang.
As a politician, Inoki boasts a track record of using sports to promote peace and humanitarian efforts. In 1990, he paid several visits to Iraq when over 100 Japanese citizens were abducted by Saddam Hussein’s regime to be used as shields during the Persian Gulf War, said The Post article. He hosted a wrestling-centered “peace festival” in Baghdad at the time, and that effort, along with the Japanese government’s negotiations with Iraq, eventually led to the release of the Japanese hostages a few days later.
The geopolitical relations between North Korea and Japan have been contentious, to say the least. While North Korea stands at odds with Japan’s reluctance to admit to its wartime atrocities, it didn’t help its own cause by abducting at least 17 Japanese citizens during the 1970s and ’80s to coerce them into teaching the Japanese language and culture to train North Korean spies.