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Japan's politician wages "sports diplomacy" in N Korea

Japanese wrestler-turned-politician Kanji Antonio Inoki organised a wrestling extravaganza in North Korea. He said he hopes the event will pave the way for more exchanges between Japan and North Korea. 

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA: North Koreans on Saturday (Aug 30) got a chance to experience professional wrestling in their country for the first time in nearly two decades.

The International Pro Wrestling Festival, organised by a Japanese pro wrestler turned politician, saw 21 fighters from Japan, the United States, France, Brazil and China take to the ring in the North Korean capital Pyongyang. Analysts say the two-day event is symbolic of improving relations between Japan and North Korea.

It was North Korea's first taste of the sport since 1995 and Pyongyang's 20,000-seat Ryugyong Chung Ju Yung Stadium was packed. Spectator Pak Song Hyang said: "I am part of the new generation. It was my first time seeing this kind of event. It was impressive. I hope that this kind of friendly event can be organised often to help build friendship and unity."

The entertainment extended beyond the arena, with the pro wrestlers playing tug of war and arm wrestling with North Korean children. The event was organised by Kanji Antonio Inoki - a former wrestler himself and now an opposition member of Japan's Upper House. He said he hopes the event will pave the way for more exchanges between Japan and North Korea. 

The pro wrestling extravaganza was the first major sporting event with big-name foreigners since an exhibition match featuring Dennis Rodman and a team of former NBA players was held for leader Kim Jung Un's birthday in January.

Kim Yong Hyun, professor of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University, said: "This exhibition shows North Korea's determination to improve ties with Japan. I think it clearly shows how North Korea wants to actively tackle its foreign affairs."

It will take more than wrestling diplomacy to resolve more serious regional issues. Japan continues to enforce tough UN sanctions against North Korea's nuclear programme. And Pyongyang has yet to respond to South Korea's proposal for reunions of separated families during Korean Thanksgiving next week.