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June 28, 2017

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Japan lawmaker wrestles with N. Korea 'sport diplomacy'

TOKYO--A Japanese wrestler-turned-politician hopes his vision of "sports diplomacy" can repair his country's fraught relationship with North Korea, as he prepares to host an extraordinary sporting event in Pyongyang.

And Kanji "Antonio" Inoki has form: he helped secure the release of Japanese hostages in Iraq in 1990 after impressing tyrant Saddam Hussein, and more recently used his old bouts with Pakistani wrestlers to foster goodwill between the South Asian country and his own.

Standing 1.9 meters (six feet three inches) tall, with a square jaw and a penchant for red scarves, Inoki is instantly recognizable on Japanese television, but is best known abroad for taking on world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali in a zany wrestler-versus-boxer match in Tokyo in 1976.

The grappler also organized and competed in a "Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace" in Pyongyang in 1995, featuring bouts between Japanese and American pro wrestlers publicly staged for the first time in the reclusive country, with an ailing Ali as a guest.

Inoki's latest venture will bring 21 combatants from Japan, the United States, France, Brazil and China to the "International Pro Wrestling Festival" at the North Korean capital's 20,000-seat Ryugyong Chung Ju-yung Stadium on Aug. 30 and 31.

They include American Bob Sapp and Frenchman Jerome Le Banner, according to Inoki's office, which will co-host the event with North Korean authorities. Sideshows in the Korean combat sport of taekwondo and other martial arts will also feature.

"We have basically and always aimed to create as favorable an environment as possible" for bilateral ties, said Inoki, who has visited Pyongyang 29 times since 1974 to build connections with North Korea, the birthplace of his late wrestling mentor, known by the ring name of Rikidozan.

"Government-level talks should go into depth as soon as possible. I believe the best solution is that Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe visits," Inoki said.

The event was announced last month, just days after Tokyo revoked some unilateral sanctions including curbs on travel against the isolated state, to reward its decision to relaunch a probe into the fate of Japanese kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.

After the travel ban was eased, Inoki led a group of lawmakers on a visit to the North and talked with officials on ways to solve the abduction issue and promote exchanges.

North Korea is expected to make public the result of the probe in September amid rumors Abe will travel to Pyongyang if the communist state makes a major announcement.

Alliances in Unlikely Places

For Inoki, sport's ability to transcend nationality and ideology make it especially suitable as a catalyst for greater cooperation on sensitive issues with the secretive nation.

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