WASHINGTON DC – Antonio Inoki, a popular Japanese ex-profesional wrestler and former Upper House politician is currently leading a Japanese delegation in Pyongyang. Having met with secretary of the Korean Worker’s Party Kim Yong Il and today watched a high profile bout between Japanese and North Korean judoists, the purpose of Inoki’s visit is as of yet unclear.
Aside from his experience in North Korea, Inoki is also well known for having fought Muhammad Ali in 1976, being elected to the Japanese senate, and personally going to Iraq to free Japanese journalists during Operation Desert Storm. His visit comes on the back of increased DPRK-Japan bilateral negotiation and the recent return of Japanese sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto.
Inoki visited North Korea in September 2011 for the 12th Pyongyang International Film Festival. But days before his visit, rumors articulated on wrestling forums that he was hoping to propose a major wrestling tournament in North Korea to help aid the 100 year anniversary celebrations that took place in April this year (which he also attended). While that tournament didn’t ultimately happen, KCNA reported his organization did nonetheless present a gift to the late Kim Jong Il his September trip.
Having enjoyed a close relationship with North Korea that has now seen him visit the country nearly 25 times, Inoki is most well known among DPRK watchers for his work in organizing “Collision in Korea” back in 1995.
Holding the record as being the most attended wrestling tournament in the world, the “Collision in Korea” tournament is perhaps better known for geographical reasons. Taking place at Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium in April 1995, the tournament brought some of America’s biggest wrestlers and sports networks to North Korea less than a year after the death of Kim Il Sung.
Perhaps the first and only instance of bilateral U.S. – DPRK sports diplomacy, the tournament packed a record breaking 320,000 spectators. And on the eve of what would become North Korea’s infamous “Arduous March”, the event also brought a flood of American and Japanese tourists into the country.
This foreign presence led to some unforeseen consequences for the hosts, with one post-event news article drawing attention to the plight of the hundreds of ethnic Koreans who had ostensibly attended for wrestling, but really in hope of connecting with lost family members. “The Peninsula” documents what happened:
Obliged to attend the tournament by night and tour the country’s official sights by day, all requests for family reunions were turned down, even when relatives were known to be living in the center of Pyongyang. The heartbreak was reportedly too much for one 75 year old woman.
When the tour bus happened to visit a site just a few miles outside her hometown, where her sister still lives, she looked up at the sky and cried out: “Mother, Father! Your daughter has come home!”
With hopes to reconnect with lost family quashed, the tournament went ahead full steam. In the final match of the event, Antonio Inoki fought against Rick Flair, winning (predictably) after just 14 minutes to roars of excitement from the North Korean crowd.
Having met with secretary of the Korean Worker’s Party Kim Yong Il and today watched a high profile bout between Japanese and North Korean judoists, the purpose of Inoki’s visit is as of yet unclear, although given his past history with the DPRK, a new round of wrestlemania might be on the cards.
Picture: Wrestling Classics