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The Peninsula

Wrestling With Diplomacy in North Korea

Published February 9, 2012
Category: North Korea

By Chad 0Carroll

Rewind to April 1995, just one year after the death of Kim Il Sung, a nuclear crisis that nearly brought about war, and a time of biting economic hardship.  After such a long period of mourning, probably the last thing you would have expected to see taking place would be an international wrestling tournament in Pyongyang, attended by the likes of boxing champion Muhammad Ali and World Championship Wrestling’s (WCW) Rick Flair.  But that’s exactly what happened, and bizarrely, all in the name of international peace and friendship.  If the post Kim Il Sung period is providing the template for North Korea after Kim Jong-il, might Pyongyang now seek to repeat history through another major wrestling tournament at some point this year?

Having organized a number of similar events in Beijing, Moscow and Baghdad, event director Antonio Inoki evidently saw 1995 as the perfect time to help improve the DPRK’s relations with long-time adversaries Japan and the USA. As a well-known wrestler and former Japanese politician, Inoki was in a unique position to put on an event like “Collision in Korea”.  Having been trained by the legendary Korean wrestler Rikidozan (much admired in the DPRK), Inoki’s popularity in North Korea gave him the capacity to convince authorities there about the benefits of his prospective tournament.  And as owner of New Japan Pro Wrestling (a well respected international wrestling promotions company), he had good connections to wrestling communities in both Japan and the United States.

Former WCW President Eric Bischoff wrote about being approached for the tournament in his biography, Controversy Creates Cash. Recounting Inoki’s initial proposal to WCW, he explained:  “When I got that phone call and the opportunity to go to a place that [was] off-limits to Americans, I jumped at it. I said, “Ab­solutely, no problem”.  With support from an American wrestling promoter secured, agreement from the North Koreans to host it in their mammoth sized May Day Stadium, and access for foreign visitors approved, Inoki scheduled the tournament to form the main pillar of the 1995 Pyongyang International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace.  He was even able to persuade Muhammad Ali to attend, having fought against him in a special event in 1976.

Recorded in history as the largest ever professional wrestling event, the North Koreans packed a record breaking 320,000 spectators into Pyongyang’s May Day stadium to watch proceedings over the course of two days.  But compared to the raucous crowds commonly associated with American wrestling events, the Pyongyang crowd appear subdued in video recordings of the event.  Given North Korea’s isolation at the time, this should come as no surprise.  And as Bischoff recalled,  “I wondered what they could possibly be thinking when they saw Ric Flair come out in his flowered, sequined robe as the 2001 Space Odyssey theme blared through the speakers.”

While the audience was mainly local, some 15,000 Japanese, Chinese and overseas Koreans were reported as also having attended the event, with even a handful of Americans joining.  This foreign presence led to some unforeseen consequences for the hosts, with one post-event news article drawing attention to the plight of the hundreds of ethnic Koreans who had ostensibly attended for wrestling, but really in hope of connecting with lost family members.  Obliged to attend the tournament by night and tour the country’s official sights by day, all requests for family reunions were turned down – even when relatives were known to be living in the center of Pyongyang.   The heartbreak was reportedly too much for one 75 year old woman.  When the tour bus happened to visit a site just a few miles outside her hometown, where her sister still lives, she looked up at the sky and cried out: “Mother, Father! Your daughter has come home!”

Walter Keats, manager of Asia Pacific Travel, was one of the few American tourists allowed to go on the trip, in what marked one of the first opportunities U.S. nationals ever had to visit the DPRK.  Entering the country by train (now impossible for Americans), his group took in a nine day tour of the country that centered around the two day wrestling event. Talking to The Peninsula, Walter recalled the tour as being extremely restrictive, but that the group unexpectedly got to see well beyond the capital, taking in sites deep in the country – all just months before the onset of the countries’ worst-ever famine.

In the final match of the event, Antonio Inoki fought against Rick Flair, winning (predictably) after just 14 minutes to roars of excitement from the North Korean crowd. Even if they didn’t understand wrestling initially, they did know that Flair was an American and were happy to see his demise in the last stage of the event. With Inoki’s victory, one of the most bizarre examples of sporting diplomacy came to an end, bizarrely then kept off American TV screens until one year later, when WCW turned it into a Pay-Per-View for its domestic audience.

As far as sports diplomacy goes, the nature of North Korea makes it hard to see if Inoki’s wrestling tournament helped foster a better understanding of the Japanese and Americans even one iota.  While other sports might strengthen people-to-people relations through team-work and collaboration, by its very nature, wrestling was never going to do much to change North Korean opinions towards two traditional adversaries.  And if the event was at all meant to improve American understanding of the DPRK, it looks to have failed miserably on this front.  Recounting his departure from Pyongyang, in his autobiography Ric Flair describes kissing the ground on arriving in Japan, so “glad to be back on friendly soil”.  And as for Muhammad Ali’s reaction, well, due to expletives it cannot be published here. Suffice to say, he didn’t get a very good impression of North Korea.

While the 1995 wrestling tournament may have had some lofty objectives related to peace and friendship, they sadly went by unachieved. And if anything, the tournament may have even contributed to worsening international opinion of North Korea, such was the nature of the feedback from much of the wrestling community. So while there may be some sense in repeating as much of the past as possible to help bolster Kim Jong-un’s leadership credentials post Kim Jong-il, North Korea would now be ill advised to host another major wrestling tournament.  Instead, a drug-free and constructive participation at the London Olympics offers a much better opportunity for the DPRK to improve its standing and contribute to an environment of international peace and friendship.

Chad 0Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from David Stanley’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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