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View more articles by Doyun Kim
Doyun is an NK News contributor based in Seoul. She studied Sociology and English at Wellesley College, where she initially developed her interest in DPRK issues.
The Pyongyang International Pro Wrestling Contest ended last Sunday, after plenty of international media attention.
But the question now, for many observers, is whether the event accomplished its stated goal: of encouraging diplomacy and understanding through sport.
“Sports,” of course, is something of a misnomer when discussing pro wrestling, with its over-the-top storylines and staged conclusions. Still, the event was put together by Japanese Diet member Kanji “Antonio” Inoki – a retired pro wrestler himself, famous for once fighting Muhammad Ali to a draw in a prototypical mixed martial arts contest, as well as staging the largest-ever pro wrestling event in Pyongyang in 1995.
Inoki, one of the few Japanese citizens popular in the North, arranged the two-day competition to improve North Korea’s relations with the outside world by bringing together athletes, reporters and other participants from around the world.
One thing that is certain is that the event brought a rare international presence to North Korea, encouraging cultural exchange with heightened publicity and coverage.
CNN, the Washington Post and other Western media were present to report on the wrestling, but did not limit their observations to the sport. Reporters took advantage of their invitation into the reclusive state, commenting on the oddities of their state-guided tours.
But being there to see such oddities may pay dividends, some experts believe. Prof. Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul called pro wrestling “a rather strange activity” likely to reinforce Western perceptions of North Korea as a “weird place.” Still, he said he believes “the more exchange with the outside world, of any kind, the better.”
During their stay, the participating athletes and members of the international press toured Pyongyang, visiting the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the recently opened Munsu Water Park and others. They also spent time arm wrestling with local kids and watching youth wrestlers train.
Pras Michel, formerly of American hip-hop trio the Fugees attended the wrestling competition and drew even more Western media attraction by performing the ALS ice bucket challenge in Pyongyang.
WILL ANYTHING CHANGE?
Cultural events attracting this sort of international interest have been controversial in the past, and observers are far from unanimous that all contact with the North is beneficial.
Joshua Stanton, attorney and author of the One Free Korea blog, said that history shows that special occasions that appear to open borders with the North are usually misleading and do not bring forth any real change.
For example, North Korean cheerleaders who traveled to South Korea for the 2002 Asian Games in Busan ended up in prison camps. In another high-profile exchange in 2008, the New York Philharmonic’ made their much-anticipated visit to Pyongyang, however DPRK-U.S. relations have not improved in any meaningful way since, or due to, the event.
“I defy anyone to cite evidence that spectacles like this have ever accomplished anything other than serving Pyongyang’s propaganda, putting hard currency in its bank accounts and rehabilitating the careers of washed-up celebrities,” Stanton said.
Although it may be unrealistic to expect the regime’s political motivations to yield to these cultural exchanges, especially in the absence of governmental engagement, others said the significance of these events should not be overlooked.
Christine Hong, an assistant professor at UC Santa Cruz and executive board member of Korea Policy Institute, said that the “humanizing exchange” of programs such as these can be invaluable since “these kinds of events and spaces enable reconciliation and engagement to occur between the peoples of countries that have been partitioned or at war with each other even in the absence of a formal peace.”
“It’s true that it’s difficult to envision a meaningful thawing of relations between the United States and North Korea without state-level policies of engagement, but cultural avenues of exchange as well as people-to-people programs shouldn’t be dismissed in terms of their significance,” she said.
The competition was held in the Ryugyong Chung Ju-yung Gymnasium with the tagline “For Peace, Friendship.” During his address at the opening ceremony, Inoki said that he expected the Japan and the DPRK – who earlier this summer reached an agreement in which the North would re-investigate its past abductions of Japanese civilians in return for lightened sanctions – would become “close and friendly neighbors” rather than “near and distant countries,” the North’s Korean Central News Agency reported.
North Korea’s Jang Ung, a member of the International Olympic Committee, and co-chairmen of the competition’s organizing committee with Inoki, also expressed hope that sports and cultural exchange can bring about worldwide peace and friendship.
The jointly held tournament occurred weeks before North Korea is set to release its first report on the Japanese abductees.
Including Bob Sapp, an ex-NFL lineman popular in Japan as a pro wrestler, kickboxer and mixed martial artist, who has been likened to a more diplomatically astute version of Dennis Rodman for avoiding controversy, 21 wrestlers from Japan, France, U.S., China and Brazil participated.
Featured Image: KCNA