Returning from Pyongyang, Japan lawmaker says North will pursue nukes as long as U.S. keeps up pressure

North Korea will continue to pursue its nuclear programs and work toward developing even stronger weapons as long as it remains subject to a U.S.-led global effort to squeeze the regime, a maverick Diet member quoted a high-ranking Pyongyang official as telling him during a recent visit to the reclusive country.

Lawmaker Antonio Inoki, a former professional wrestler, said upon his return to Tokyo on Monday night that he met with Ri Su Yong, a vice chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

“He told me Pyongyang will continue its nuclear testing and take it to a higher level unless the global community, especially the U.S., stops applying pressure,” Inoki told reporters at Haneda airport, sporting his trademark red necktie and scarf.

Ri made the comment, Inoki said, when they met Friday for an hour and 15 minutes.

Inoki said he passed along a wish by the Liberal Democratic Party to dispatch a delegation of lawmakers to Pyongyang, which elicited a positive response.

Inoki, whose real given name is Kanji, is among just a few people in Japan with direct access to the upper echelons of North Korea. His unusually close ties with Pyongyang officials stem from when he was a protege of the late North Korean-born wrestler Rikidozan, often dubbed the “father of proresu (pro wrestling)” in Japan.

The 74-year-old Inoki is a frequent visitor to the hermit nation. His latest trip came amid escalating tension on the Korean Peninsula, fueled by Pyongyang’s sixth nuclear test earlier this month and the breakneck pace at which it has test-fired ballistic missiles throughout this year. It also coincided with the 69th anniversary of the founding of North Korea.

Despite government rebukes, Inoki has repeatedly visited Pyongyang — this was his 32nd visit — in pursuit of dialogue with the nation as opposed to the policy of all-out pressure long pursued by Tokyo.

“One of the biggest purposes of my visit was not to sever a channel of communication with the North, because it’s Japan who is currently shutting the door,” Inoki said. “It’s easy to apply pressure, but it’s really difficult to relieve tension afterward.”

Inoki’s unconventional action has more often than not raised hackles in the government.

An unauthorized trip to the North in November 2013, for one, resulted in him being barred from the Upper House for 30 days — the second harshest disciplinary measure possible.

Asked last week about Inoki’s trip, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stressed the government position that all visits to the North by Japanese citizens are strongly discouraged.

“In the world of politics, we can never have honest discussions unless we talk. We’ve got to talk,” Inoki said.

He first entered politics in 1989 on a vow to promote international peace through sports, becoming the first professional wrestler elected to the Diet. He lost his Upper House seat in 1995 but won it back in 2013.

Also a popular figure on entertainment TV shows, Inoki is synonymous with his pet phrase “genki desuka!” (“What’s up, guys!”) as well as a powerful slap to the cheek he gives his fans to knock some konjo (guts) into them.

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