North Korea's pro-wrestling propaganda machine

opinion May 23, 2014 00:00

By Catherine A Traywick

It seems like it was just yesterday that self-described "basketball diplomat" Dennis Rodman was in Pyongyang shooting hoops and inciting international outrage. Such was the backlash against his recent trip that he's since vowed never to visit North Korea

Later this year, Pyongyang will host an international pro-wrestling event bringing together American, Japanese and other wrestlers, in the spirit of “independence, peace and friendship”, according to The Wall Street Journal. The exact date and line-up of wrestlers haven’t been finalised yet, but if it’s anything like its 1995 predecessor – a massive, meticulously choreographed event titled “Collision in Korea” – it will be a spectacular display of political propaganda.
The 1995 competition consisted of eight matches over two days and featured wrestlers from the United States and Japan. The event included the American superstar Ric Flair, who fought Japanese heavyweight Antonio Inoki, who had also helped to organise the bouts. Before the competition kicked off, co-organiser Kazuo Ishikawa told reporters that “Collision in Korea” was “wrestling diplomacy at its best”.
While Rodman called Kim Jong-un his “best friend” during his visit to North Korea, the Americans wrestlers who participated in “Collision in Korea” were not quite so charmed by the hermit kingdom. Flair wrote about the rather unsettling experience in his 2010 memoir, “To Be the Man”:
“The second we arrived in Pyongyang, our passports were confiscated. Then each of us was assigned a ‘cultural attache’ to follow us everywhere; these guys even sat in the dressing room while we went over our matches. In the dining room where the wrestlers ate, there was a camera in each corner, monitoring every movement. When Scott Norton called his wife and said, ‘This place sucks,’ his phone line suddenly went dead.”
Flair writes that he was awed by the turnout at the stadium – 190,000 people showed up on the second day – but nevertheless found it “creepy”.
“The spectators cheered on cue,” he wrote. “I almost got the feeling that they had been ordered to attend.”
Muhammad Ali had come along to watch the event, but when it was over, he and Flair were made to stay an additional three days, “being dragged from place to place to meet with different Communist officials”, according to Flair. During a dinner with various North Korean officials, Flair recalls Ali muttering, “No wonder we hate these [Oedipal expletive].”
In January, Flair recalled the trip during an interview with USA Today. “The thing that really disturbed me the most was that they wanted me to make a public statement that after my time in North Korea, I saw that they could dominate the United States of America if they wanted to,” he said. “I can’t remember how I angled my way around that one but I did not say that. I just said that I was thrilled and honoured to be there and appreciated their hospitality.”
The television broadcast of the 1995 event is like an acid trip into the dark heart of that decade: Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.

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