TOKYO — The standoff over North Korea could lead to “nuclear war,” a Japanese ex-pro wrestler turned lawmaker warned on Wednesday, urging nations to dial down the tension after the isolated country fired a missile over northern Japan last month.
Tokyo could play a role in mediating with its neighbor, said the 74-year-old Antonio Inoki, who is known for fighting boxer Muhammad Ali four decades ago.
“We are seeing a situation where each raises his fist and the situation is escalating,” Inoki, who recently returned from his 32nd visit to Pyongyang, told a news conference, wearing his signature red scarf.
“It’s important to see who can be the first to lower his fist and reduce the tension,” said Inoki, who, like US basketball star Dennis Rodman, has made numerous visits to North Korea.
Pyongyang must commit to denuclearization as a prerequisite for talks, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in an interview with the Nikkei business daily published on Wednesday.
On Monday, the UN Security Council voted to tighten sanctions on the North over its sixth nuclear test.
During meetings with North Korea’s top diplomat Ri Su Yong and others on his visit, Inoki proposed that Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party send a delegation to Pyongyang, perhaps as a first step toward a visit by Abe, he added.
“I did make the proposal and was told they would be happy to receive such a delegation,” said Inoki, who strode into the news conference as if entering the ring, his theme song blaring.
Inoki said he sensed more LDP members were beginning to think dialogue was needed, but acknowledged the hurdle to an Abe visit was high.
Abe and other Japanese officials have said now was the time for pressure, not dialogue.
The square-jawed, 6-foot-3 tall Inoki developed close ties with North Korea because his mentor, pro-wrestling legend Rikidozan, hailed from North Korea but could never go home.
First elected to parliament’s upper house in 1989 from his “Sports and Peace Party,” Inoki made headlines the next year when he went to Iraq during the Gulf War and intervened on behalf of Japanese hostages, who were subsequently released.
Inoki was elected again in 2013 as an independent.
Like Rodman, he says it is vital to maintain lines of communication with the isolated North.
“It’s important to keep the door open,” Inoki said. (Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)