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North Korea’s Pro-Wrestling Propaganda Machine

North Korea’s Pro-Wrestling Propaganda Machine

It seems like it was just yesterday that self-described "basketball diplomat" Dennis Rodman was in Pyongyang shooting hoops and inciting international outrage. Such was the backlash against his recent trip that he’s since vowed never to visit North Korea again — but the DPRK isn’t ready to abandon its lofty hopes for sports diplomacy.

Later this year, Pyongyang will host an international pro-wrestling event bringing together American, Japanese, and other wrestlers, in the spirit of "independence, peace, and friendship," according to the Wall Street Journal. The exact date and line-up of wrestlers haven’t been finalized yet, but if it’s anything like its 1995 predecessor — a massive, meticulously choreographed event titled "Collision in Korea" — it will be a spectacular display of political propaganda.

The 1995 competition consisted of eight matches over two days and featured wrestlers from the United States and Japan. The event included the American superstar Ric Flair, who fought Japanese heavyweight Antonio Inoki, who had also helped to organize the bouts. Before the competition kicked off, co-organizer Kazuo Ishikawa told reporters that "Collision in Korea" was "wrestling diplomacy at its best."

The television broadcast of the event is like an acid trip into the dark heart of the 1990s:

While Rodman called Kim Jong Un his "best friend" during his visit to North Korea, the Americans wrestlers who participated in "Collision in Korea" were not quite so charmed by the hermit kingdom. Flair wrote about the rather unsettling experience in his 2010 memoir, To Be the Man:

"The second we arrived in Pyongyang, our passports were confiscated. Then each of us was assigned a ‘cultural attache’ to follow us everywhere; these guys even sat in the dressing room while we went over our matches. In the dining room where the wrestlers ate, there was a camera in each corner, monitoring every movement. When Scott Norton called his wife and said, ‘This place sucks,’ his phone line suddenly went dead."

Flair writes that he was awed by the turnout at the stadium — 190,000 people showed up on the second day — but nevertheless found it "creepy."

"The spectators cheered on cue," he wrote. "I almost got the feeling that they had been ordered to attend."

Muhammad Ali had come along to watch the event, but when it was over, he and Flair were made to stay an additional three days, "being dragged from place to place to meet with different Communist officials," according to Flair. During a dinner with various North Korean officials, Flair recalls Ali muttering, "No wonder we hate these motherfuckers."

In January, Flair recalled the trip during an interview with USA Today. "The thing that really disturbed me the most was that they wanted me to make a public statement that after my time in North Korea, I saw that they could dominate the United States of America if they wanted to," he said. "I can’t remember how I angled my way around that one but I did not say that. I just said that I was thrilled and honored to be there and appreciated their hospitality."

But the 1995 event wasn’t North Korea’s first experiment in co-opting pro-wrestling for political purposes. The first such case involved Rikidozan, the founder of professional wrestling in Japan. Rikidozan was born in North Korea, but grew up in Japan where he became a successful sumo wrestler. In the 1950s, he went to the United States and trained as a professional wrestler. For much of Rikidozan’s adult life, North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung tried to lure him back to North Korea with promises of fame and fortune, but to no avail. When the wrestler died suddenly of peritonitis, "North Korea repossessed the fighter with the 1989 biography I Am a Korean, which became required reading for a generation of North Korean citizens," the journalist Adam Johnson writes in an article about North Korea’s obsession with the late wrestler. Kim also built a tomb for Rikidozan, despite the fact that he was actually buried in Japan.

Antonio Inoki’s role in these later wrestling events isn’t coincidental. Inoki was one of Rikidozan’s most famous proteges and when he visited North Korea in 1995 for "Collision," he was invited to pay homage to Rikidozan — now a national hero — by laying a wreath on his empty tomb.* Inoki took the bait, and has since become something of an informal ambassador for North Korea, putting his celebrity to work for the nation. During the 1995 wrestling event, for example, Flair was paid to let Inoki win, a proxy victory for North Korea.

Inoki is organizing this year’s event, too, so it’s safe to say that, while the line-up hasn’t been finalized, the winners will be pre-determined.

*An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that Kim Il Sung had in 1995 invited Antonio Inoki to pay homage to Rikidozan. Kim died in 1994.