Japanese wrestler on a mission: peace with North Korea

Antonio Inoki heading to Pyongyang in pursuit of ‘world peace through sports’

Over his 74 years, Antonio Inoki has built up an unconventional resume. A wrestler-turned parliamentarian who once set up his own political party called Sports and Peace, he is better known these days as an oddball diplomat trying to avert war with North Korea.

Inoki has visited the North over 30 times, despite flak in recent years from hardliners determined to enforce sanctions on the authoritarian state. In 2013, he was stripped of his parliamentary membership for 30 days after an unauthorised trip.

Undeterred, Inoki is heading back to Pyongyang on Thursday, in time for celebrations of the North's Foundation Day, September 9th. His friends say he wants to help diffuse a crisis that has raised the threat of thermonuclear conflict.

Critics retort that he is at a best naive exhibitionist and at worst a traitor, Japan's version of Dennis Rodman, the elaborately tattooed former basketball star and one of the few Americans to have met North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un.

In 1995, during less tense times, a wrestling extravaganza Inoki hosted in Pyongyang called “Collision in Korea” attracted a reported 340,000 spectators. He has been back repeatedly since, often dragging a crew of world-class wrestlers to the isolated city.

Inoki combines these lively visits with what he calls sports diplomacy. Last year he scored a meeting with Ri Su-yong, the North’s former foreign minister and a reported confidant of Kim. There is no indication that anything comes of these encounters, though, apart from staged photos.

Inoki is often vague about what he hopes to achieve except “world peace through sports”, a phrase he repeats often. In 2014 he told a business magazine that he was “doing things that the Japanese government cannot do”, and repeatedly says it is better to keep channels of communication with the North open.

That view puts him at odds with prime minister Shinzo Abe, who said recently that the time for talking had passed, echoing the line of Donald Trump, the American president, who has relentlessly ratcheted up pressure on the Kim regime. "Talking is not the answer," said Trump last week.

Negotiations with Saddam

Yet, Inoki has some form. In 1990, during the buildup to the Gulf War, he organised an unlikely "peace festival" in Baghdad, complete with rock stars, martial artists and traditional taiko drummers. He negotiated directly with Saddam Hussein, Iraq's leader, and is credited with helping to free American and Japanese hostages.

Inoki later revealed that he had converted to Islam in Iraq and had a Muslim name: Muhammad Hussain.

Few expect such a diplomatic breakthrough this time. Experts say little short of direct talks with the Americans will deter the North from firing off another ballistic missile – or conducting another nuclear test. It may even happen while Inoki is in Pyongyang: September 9th is often marked by showy displays of national prestige.

Whatever happens, when he returns to Tokyo next Monday, the lantern-jawed six-footer will again face a barrage of questions, not all of them friendly. There appears little mood for compromise in Japan: this week the government revealed reheated plans to evacuate nearly 60,000 Japanese citizens from the Korean Peninsula should war break out.

Inoki's wrestling career reached a climax of sorts with an infamous face-off against Muhammad Ali in 1976, billed as the world's first mixed martial arts match. Inoki spent much of the time on the canvas trying to kick Ali into submission. Afterwards, he seemed angry that he had not managed to beat the world's greatest boxer. He is that kind of man.

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