North Korea, Wrestling, and Rodman-Free Diplomacy

North Korea, Wrestling, and Rodman-Free Diplomacy

More than a dozen pro athletes are converging on Pyongyang this week for a sports extravaganza being billed as "The International Pro-Wrestling Festival." Participants include Bob "the Beast" Sapp, a former American pro football player who became a celebrity in Japan as a mixed martial artist; American rapper Pras Michel, a founding member of the band The Fugees, is attending as a spectator. Leading the trip is Antonio Inoki, a colorful 71-year-old ex-pro-wrestler-turned-politician.  

This is the second wave of major athletes to visit North Korea since Kim Jong Un took power in December 2011 —  and will almost certainly prove to be a more sober affair the first wave:  ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman’s three trips to the country, most recently in January. Rodman’s trips — especially the first, which the media company Vice organized for February 2013– were about the spectacle of America’s battiest athlete (along with other basketball players) visiting the world’s most-repressive country. Any news that came out of those trips — about Kim’s baby daughter, and about Kim’s desire to talk with Obama — was subsumed by the absurdity of the bromance formed between Rodman and Kim.

Inoki’s trip, by contrast, could actually prove fruitful. For one, Inoki is a legitimate actor in Tokyo. A member of parliament, Inoki’s trip actually aims to improve relations between North Korea and Japan and comes shortly after Inoki led a group of Japanese lawmakers to Pyongyang. Inoki, who has been to North Korea roughly 30 times, has far more experience negotiating with the country than Rodman.

Perhaps more importantly, North Korea’s relationship with Japan is far less complicated than its relationship with the United States. Pyongyang believes the United States wants to destroy North Korea; but does not seem to see Japan as an existential threat. And although the United States wants North Korea to denuclearize — a highly unlikely outcome — Tokyo’s ask is much simpler: it wants to know about the Japanese kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. The fate of the abductees, who may number in the dozens or even hundreds, is a huge issue in Japan — far more important, comparatively, than the fate of the three Americans detained in North Korea.

Famously, Inoki is no stranger to hostage issues. In 1990, "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," according to AFP.

So will this trip have any effect? In May, Pyongyang agreed to re-investigate what happened to the Japanese hostages; Pyongyang will probably reveal  the results of the probe in September. If Tokyo likes what it sees, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could make a path-breaking trip to Pyongyang; with Inoki able to take credit for smoothing out the road.

The United States might get something out of it too: Michel is friends with President Barack Obama, although he told Reuters that Obama may not know he is visiting Pyongyang, Michel would be a far more trustworthy interlocutor than Rodman.