Thursday, September 21, 2017

Japan’s Dennis Rodman? An Ex-Wrestler, Politician and 32-Time Guest of North Korea

By Motoko Rich

 Forty-one years ago, Antonio Inoki, one of Japan’s most popular professional wrestlers, faced off against Muhammad Ali in a bout that critics called a farcical publicity stunt.

Last week, some commentators leveled similar criticism at Mr. Inoki, now a 74-year-old member of Japan’s Parliament, as he returned from North Korea, where he said he had visited a zoo, sipped ginseng wine and discussed nuclear diplomacy with high-ranking officials.

“He told me Pyongyang will continue its nuclear testing and take it to a higher level unless the global community, especially the U.S., stops applying pressure,” Mr. Inoki told reporters at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, referring to Ri Su-yong, a vice chairman of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.

Though Mr. Inoki — a flamboyant ex-athlete with a taste for self-promotion — has been in politics for decades, in some ways he is Japan’s equivalent of Dennis Rodman, the former N.B.A. star who has made numerous visits to North Korea.

It is a sign of North Korea’s international isolation — and the limited avenues available to understand it, much less influence it — that Mr. Inoki and Mr. Rodman are among the world’s few links to the leadership of Pyongyang’s opaque, authoritarian state.

Mr. Inoki’s five-day trip to North Korea this month was his 32nd since 1995, when he participated in a wrestling match in Pyongyang. In an interview in his Parliament offices, Mr. Inoki — sitting near a life-size cutout of himself with a raised fist, an image soon to be used in advertising for Toyota — said his ultimate goal was “to establish peace through sports diplomacy.”

He said that North Korea’s top officials wanted to engage in dialogue, but believed that in the face of overwhelming American force, their only option was to develop nuclear weapons. (Unlike Mr. Rodman, Mr. Inoki has not met Kim Jong-un, the North’s leader.)

“The United Nations, Trump and Japan are all saying we need to apply more pressure,” Mr. Inoki said. “But first we need to listen to them and understand what the reasons are behind their activity.”

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