Japan's wrestler-senator on a visit to Pyongyang

Japanese professional wrestler-turned-lawmaker Antonio Inoki (centre) is surrounded by reporters upon his departure at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on Jan 12, 2013. -- PHOTO: AFP
Japanese professional wrestler-turned-lawmaker Antonio Inoki (centre) is surrounded by reporters upon his departure at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on Jan 12, 2013. -- PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (AFP) - A Japanese professional wrestler-turned-lawmaker left on a visit to North Korea on Sunday for talks with officials after a high-profile leadership purge in the reclusive 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 is to fly into Pyongyang on Monday after a stopover in Beijing.

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

Mr Inoki, an opposition member of the upper house, is head of a non-profit organisation aimed at establishing sports-based exchanges which opened an office in Pyongyang last month.

After the November trip, Mr Inoki, a member of the tiny 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 is scheduled to return to Tokyo next Thursday.

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

But 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."

Mr Inoki, whose mentor in professional wrestling was the late Korean-born Mitsuhiro Momota, aka Rikidozan, has visited North Korea nearly 30 times since 1994.

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

Mr Inoki's upcoming trip comes on the heels of a show of high-profile "sports diplomacy" involving former US basketball star Dennis Rodman.

Mr Rodman and other former National Basketball Association (NBA) stars 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 the North for allegedly seeking to topple the government.

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

He has also been criticised for pandering to a totalitarian regime which is infamous for a terrible record on human rights.

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