Before Rodman, there was Inoki

On the plane from Beijing to Pyongyang in November, I ran into Japanese Upper House Parliamentarian Kanji (Antonio) Inoki. He had his trademark bright red scarf on, and his distinctive chin caught my attention. Later that week, he met with the recently executed Jang Sung Taek and became known as the last foreigner who had seen Jang.

To those who do not follow Korea-Japan relations or Pro-Wrestling, Antonio Inoki is not a name that would ring a bell. Many of us know Dennis Rodman and his latest antics in North Korea, but before Rodman’s exhibition match, one of the highest profile-sporting event held in North Korea was an international wrestling competition, with Muhammad Ali, Ric Flair and Antonio Inoki attending. Collision in Korea took place in Pyongyang in 1995 in front of a crowd of over 300,000.

Antonio Inoki was a parliamentarian in the early 90s, and returned to politics in 2013. My basic understanding of Japanese politics is that some seats in the Upper House are based on a national vote, and Inoki benefits from votes from his apolitical but strong fan base (To gauge how strong this fan base is, check out Inoki’s ‘slap of respect’ in the video below). North Korea has been a pet issue of his and he has made 30 or so visits to the country. As a sportsman and celebrity like Rodman, there are some superficial comparisons, as well as major differences. More importantly, Inoki’s example demonstrates that sports diplomacy with the right personalities, limited expectations, and a long-term horizon, can look very different.

Compared to Rodman’s visit, Antonio Inoki seems so far to be able to handle his visits with tact and purpose. While critics of Rodman trip point out that his visit was too focused on the partying aspect and too little on key issues between the DPRK and the US, Inoki’s visit are clearly driven by a political agenda. Inoki has made clear that his purpose is to use sports as a channel for promoting DPRK-Japan exchanges, and to act as an unsanctioned and unofficial channel for resolving the abductee issue. While his visits have yet to yield results on the challenging abductee issue, his interactions and cooperation with North Koreans have provided empirical insights that have added to Japanese understanding of North Korea’s internal situation.

And the most important reason why Antonio Inoki is able to deal with North Koreans is captured in this video (seriously, check it out):