Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

N. Koreans Let Down Hair And Watch Big Guys Hit Mat

For a few sequined moments, the US sheds its 'Western imperialist' image, as Pyongyang watches wrestlers

MOVE over Jimmy Carter.

The developed world's latest goodwill ambassadors to hard-line, reclusive North Korea are none other than Wild Pegasus, Flying Scorpio, El Samurai, and Hawk Warrior.

About these ads

Under the floodlights of May Day Stadium last week, antics by third-rate professional wrestlers from Japan and the United States, stars of the Pyongyang International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace, partially thawed the icy facade of this tightly controlled capital.

For once, North Koreans seemed to let their hair down a bit.

Most foreign visitors can usually expect little more than stony stares and perhaps an occasional furtive glance from local residents.

Steeped in Pyongyang demonology, North Koreans shun ''Japanese imperialist aggressors'' and ''US imperialist warmongers'' as allies of South Korean ''puppet bandits.''

But during two cool spring evenings, the competitors were strutting in leather, ostrich plumes, and other prematch finery, leaping at top decibel onto adversaries and writhing on the mat in contrived agony, grunting and shrieking their way to modest applause and even oohs and aahs from a North Korean crowd uninitiated in the theatrics of this unlikely American cultural export.

Bizarre experiences

''I don't think it is real, but still it is quite dangerous to do this mimicry [of wrestling],'' observed a government guide in polite admiration of the mock combat.

About these ads

''It's the most bizarre experience I've had here,'' says a British survivor of seven years of residence in the regimented North Korean capital, shaking his head.

The festival, believed to be the largest involving outsiders in North Korea, drew 15,000 foreign tourists and more than 100 Asian and Western journalists eager for a first-hand look at one of the world's most isolated countries.

That number reportedly was a disappointment from the 20,000 visitors organizers had originally hoped to attract.

In recent years, Pyongyang had begun to selectively allow tightly regulated tourist travel and occasional visits by some journalists.

But, since the 1989 International Youth Festival held by delegates from socialist countries, capital residents had not witnessed such a foreign influx.

The spectacle was the inspiration of Kanji Inoki, a Japanese wrestler-wheeler-dealer, whose lucrative promotion earned him a small degree of North Korean respect generally reserved for the former president, strongman Kim Il Sung, and his son and heir, Kim Jong Il.

A disciple of the late Rikidozan, Japan's top pro wrestler and a North Korean favorite, Mr. Inoki was featured in the run-up to the festival on posters plastered about town, tacky ceramic plaques for sale on the streets, and television news reports showing him at revered sites of the Kim family.

Sequins and silk

When the 225-pound Inoki appeared ringside in a flowing white silk robe to wrestle a purple-sequined US challenger named Ric Flair, the thousands of Koreans and foreigners mustered a cheer of approval.

Adding to the showmanship was Muhammad Ali, former United States heavyweight boxing champion and a close Inoki friend and business associate, who watched the matches and accompanying cultural extravaganza from behind sunglasses on the stadium's celebrity podium. Conspicuous in their absence were the rarely seen Kim Jong Il and other top military leaders.

Likening his wrestling festival to table-tennis matches that helped draw China out of isolation in the 1970s, Inoki shouted, ''For world peace,'' as hundreds of doves were let loose in the stadium.

The event seemed to be a perplexing one for the elite North Korean spectators packing the stadium in $2.50 seats while foreigners watched from ringside at $100 per head.

As snack concessionaires trimly attired in white business suits circulated among the crowd, many Koreans wore both special caps reading ''World Champion'' and their customary buttons honoring revered leader Kim Il Sung, who died last year.

An unorchestrated festivity

Politics came into play as the crowd favored the generally dominant Japanese wrestlers over Americans in an tough choice between two long-hated rivals.

Still, at times an air of unorchestrated festiveness seemed to break through. One crowd-pleaser was a tag match among four Japanese women competitors, headlined by a burly wrestler with a purple pompadour hairstyle, Bull Nakano.

Another curiosity was a muscular American known as Flying Scorpio, who catapulted into the ring and, to the crowd's applause, swung into his trademark dance routine, dubbed by one visitor the ''first break-dance in Pyongyang.''

''That was one of the most spontaneous reactions I've seen in three days in North Korea,'' says an American tourist.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.