It has been reported that plans are afoot for North Korea to host an international professional wrestling event in Pyongyang in August. WWE Hall of Famer Tony Atlas is amongst those to have indicated they would want to participate.
This isn't the first time North Korea has explored such an initiative. A similar event was organised 20 years ago by Kanji Inoki, a Japanese wrestler-come-politician known by his ring name 'Antonio Inoki'. In 1995, he helped to organise a joint WCW-NJPW two day, eight match event under the banners "Wrestling for Peace" and "Collision in Korea". Inoki faced Hall of Famer Ric Flair in the headline event in front of some 350,000 people.
In his autobiography, Flair recalls various details of his experience in the DPRK. These include his passport being confiscated, cameras in the dining room, odd interference with phones, appointment of a full-time accompanier and an unnerving response to the 'spots' in the match. It has also been reported that Flair was paid to lose to Inoki. The 'Nature Boy' was made to stay for an extra three days following his match to meet government officials and he was requested to make public statements about North Korea's superior powers. Flair concludes that whilst the people he met were nice, it was clear the the DPRK government was focused on political ends - wanting the US to believe they were a serious threat.
Politics and wrestling in Korea are somewhat intertwined. Inoki is a former wrestler and politician. His mentor was Rikidozan, a North Korean wrester whom, following his time training in the US, founded professional wrestling in Japan where he had grown up. Despite reported attempts by Kim Il-Sung to lure him back to the DPRK, Rikidozan died and was buried in Japan. Following his death, a biography entitled "I am a Korean" was published and became a required read for the North Koreans. A tomb was built in his honour and Inoki laid a wreath there in 1995.
Other sports have also been spun into the Korean's political web. Famously, NBA player and (let us not forget) World Championship Wrestling alumnus Dennis Rodman visited Kim Jong-Un and supposedly offered to train a North Korean basketball team for the 2016 Olympics. However, Rodman's attempt to sing happy birthday to the dictator and reported comments about US detainees were not at all well received back home. He has since offered not to return to the country.
The proposed wrestling tournament is said by the state news agency to be held for "independence, peace and friendship" but if Flair's memoires are anything to go by there may be ulterior motives at play. We recently wrote a blog about the WWE's visit to Saudi Arabia in which we argued that whilst the company could have more publically engaged in discussion of equalities issues, there was certainly merit in performing in Saudi. The same cannot be said for the DPRK. We will wait to be proven wrong but the idea of a state show in Korea doesn't do much, if anything, to help the people suffering there.
The UN Human Rights council recently presented the Koreans with 268 recommendations to improve the human rights in the country. To be fair, the DPRK has said it will consider 185 of them but the UN commission was clear there were systemic, widespread and gross human rights violations being perpetrated by the state. No wrestling show, however impressive, will be able to tackle this problem. The audience may very well be commanded to attend - as Ric Flair alluded to in his book - and in all likelihood the only reviews they'll be able to access after the show will be on the state sponsored intranet. The time to act on human rights abuses in Korea is now, according to the UN rapporteur, and helping to prop up the leadership is not going to ensure that action occurs. We'll be putting our view to Tony Atlas and others that a united global front, fighting for not in front of the people of North Korea is necessary and that international alliance includes the wrestling world.