Japan politician to host pro-wrestling exhibition in North Korea

TOKYO (AFP) - A Japanese wrestler-turned-politician said on Monday that he would co-host an international wrestling exhibition in North Korea next month, just days after Tokyo revoked some of its unilateral sanctions against the isolated state.

Antonio Inoki said some 20 grapplers from around the world, including from the United States and France, would perform at the two-day event in the capital Pyongyang.

The former wrestling legend - whose own contribution to its far-fetched fight storylines enthralled millions in Japan during his career - would not reveal names of competitors, but said his visit might also include meetings with high-level officials.

"I've been working on contributing to world peace through sports, and I hope to keep doing this work in the future," Inoki, wearing his trademark red scarf, told a Tokyo press conference.

"In my past visits I met with senior (North Korean) government officials, and I think it will be the case this time, too," he added.

"But I can't announce the names of the competitors until right before the visit."

Inoki, 71, now a lawmaker in Japan's upper house of parliament, heads a non-profit organisation aimed at establishing sports-based international exchanges, which opened an office in Pyongyang last year.

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

The event on August 30 and 31 at the 20,000-seat Ryugyong Chung Ju-yung Stadium will also feature performers showing off the skills in Korean martial art Taekwondo and Japanese Aikido, organisers said.

The planned bouts will be the second time Inoki has been involved in wrestling in North Korea. In 1995, he organised a sports festival in Pyongyang featuring bouts between Japanese and American pro wrestlers.

The announcement Monday came after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said last week that Japan would lift some of its unilateral sanctions on North Korea.

The diplomatic easing was aimed at giving credit to Pyongyang's efforts in re-investigating the kidnapping of Japanese nationals by its agents during the Cold War - the abductees were used to train spies in Japanese language and custom.

But Tokyo's moves on sanctions prompted a warning from South Korea, which cautioned Japan not to undermine efforts to force the North to abandon its nuclear weapons.

Inoki said the visit was not linked to Tokyo's recent moves, and added: "I don't want to pour cold water on what the government is doing.

"I was advised by many people not to discuss the abduction issue, but naturally it will be on the table" at meetings with government officials.

He added: "I think (the Japanese government) don't want me to go."

After his last visit to North Korea in January, Inoki told reporters that the country seemed "calm" despite a leadership purge last year.

During his four-day trip there, Inoki met Kim Yong-Il, director of the International Department of the North Korean Workers Party, and other officials.

The low-profile visit came days after flamboyant former basketball player Dennis Rodman caused international controversy with a trip to visit his "friend for life" leader Kim Jong-Un, singing "Happy Birthday" on a basketball court ahead of a special exhibition game.

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