TOKYO (AFP) - Flamboyant Japanese wrestler-turned-politician Kanji "Antonio" Inoki kicked off his brand of sports diplomacy in North Korea on Saturday ahead of an unusual two-day event featuring martial artists from around the world.
Inoki, 71, an opposition member of Japan's upper house with a penchant for red scarves, has travelled to the reclusive state with a host of international fighters in an attempt to use sport to thaw relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang.
He met with North Korea's ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam on Saturday, hours before the first night of the "International Pro Wrestling Festival" kicked off at Pyongyang's 20,000-seat Ryugyong Jong Ju-Yong Stadium, Japanese media reported from the North Korean capital.
Kim presides over North Korea's parliament, the Supreme People's Assembly, and often receives state guests or credentials from foreign ambassadors - an indication of how seriously Pyongyang is taking Inoki's visit.
"I feel very grateful for your continuous efforts to promote mutual understanding between the two countries and create an environment toward improvement in Korea-Japan relations," the 86-year-old Kim told Inoki at the Mansudae Assembly Hall, Kyodo news agency reported.
There was no indication whether supreme leader Kim Jong Un, who is a keen sports fan, will appear at the martial arts event as he did in January when former US basketball star Dennis Rodman sang "Happy Birthday" to him before an exhibition game, Kyodo said.
Inoki - who stands at 1.9 metres - has organised the festival with North Korea's authorities, taking along 21 grapplers from Japan, the United States, France and Brazil as well as one from China, North Korea's communist ally. They include Bob Sapp, a former American mixed martial artist who has become a household name in Japan, Jerome Le Banner of France and Brazilian Montanha Silva.
More than 50 Japanese package tourists have also arrived for the event, Kyodo said.
Strong connections with Pyongyang
When Inoki and his entourage arrived in Pyongyang via Beijing on Thursday, he held talks with Kang Sok Ju, a key figure in North Korea's diplomatic circles and a secretary of the Workers Party. North Korea's high-profile treatment of Inoki seems to indicate its readiness to improve ties with Japan, public broadcaster NHK said.
The exhibition takes place nearly two months after Japan lifted some of its unilateral sanctions against North Korea when Pyongyang agreed to reopen a probe into the fate of Japanese who were kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.
In 2002, North Korea admitted to some of the abduction cases and returned some of the kidnap victims. But Pyongyang's refusal to come clean on all the cases has stalled rapprochement efforts between the two countries.
Kim Jong Un, presumed to be 31, took over from his father Kim Jong Il in late 2011. His late grandfather Kim Il-Sung founded North Korea.
Inoki is best known abroad for battling then world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali in a zany wrestler-versus-boxer in Tokyo in 1976. But he has also cultivated strong connections with the Pyongyang regime, having now made 30 trips since 1974 to the isolated state, the birthplace of his late wrestling mentor known by the ring name of Rikidozan who still remains a sporting legend in Japan and a national hero in North Korea.
His willingness to involve himself in Japan's diplomacy made headlines in 1990, when he helped secure the release of 41 Japanese hostages in Iraq during the Gulf War after meeting Saddam Hussein's son and staging a wrestling show in Baghdad.
In 1995, Inoki organised and competed in the first-ever pro-wrestling exhibition in North Korea, featuring matches between Japanese and US pro-wrestlers with an ailing Ali as a guest. He retired from wrestling in 1998.