North Korea

Japan lawmaker heads to North Korea after Pyongyang leadership purge

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 10:41pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 10:41pm

A Japanese professional wrestler-turned-lawmaker left on a visit to North Korea yesterday for talks with officials after a leadership purge in the communist state.

"I will just check the faces of people standing on the stage after some change in the [North Korean leadership] structure," the senator, Antonio Inoki, told reporters before leaving Tokyo's Haneda airport, according to Jiji Press.

He was to fly in to Pyongyang today after a stopover in Beijing.

Inoki, 70, is a frequent visitor to North Korea. During his last trip, in November, he met Jang Song-Thaek, the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who was long considered his adviser. Jang was purged and executed last month after being branded a counter-revolutionary.

Inoki, an opposition member of the upper house, is head of a non-profit organisation that aims to establish sports-based exchanges with North Korea. The organisation opened an office in Pyongyang last month.

After the November trip, Inoki, a member of the opposition Japan Restoration Party, was suspended for a month from the legislature for visiting Pyongyang without parliamentary permission while the house was sitting.

The latest trip does not require parliament's approval because it is in recess.

He was scheduled to return to Tokyo on Thursday.

His talks … are likely to take up diplomacy through sports

Inoki's secretary said the senator would not know until he arrived in Pyongyang who he would have talks with.

The secretary added: "His talks with North Korean senior officials are likely to take up diplomacy through sports, and the possibility of other Japanese parliamentarians visiting the country."

Inoki, whose mentor in professional wrestling was the late Korean-born Mitsuhiro Momota, also known as Rikidozan, has visited North Korea nearly 30 times since 1994. Perhaps his most famous bout was against heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali on June 26, 1976, in Tokyo.

In 1995, he organised a sports festival in Pyongyang featuring bouts between Japanese and American wrestlers.

Inoki's trip comes on the heels of a show of "sports diplomacy" involving former US basketball player Dennis Rodman.

Rodman and other former National Basketball Association professional players played in an exhibition match in Pyongyang last week.

Prior to the match, Rodman stirred controversy by implying in a US television interview that an American missionary was at fault for being detained in North Korea for allegedly seeking to topple the government.

Rodman, 52, later apologised for the comment, saying that he had been stressed and drinking at the time.