Japanese wrestler-turned-lawmaker Antonio Inoki on Friday held talks with North Korea's top official in charge of foreign affairs, amid soaring tensions between the country and the rest of the world over its relentless nuclear and missile tests.
Inoki and Ri Su Yong, a vice chairman of the Workers' Party of Korea who formerly served as foreign minister, shook hands and hugged when they met in Pyongyang.
"I welcome you," Ri, known as a trusted confidant of leader Kim Jong Un, told Inoki, who does not represent the Japanese government or belong to any political party, at the outset of their discussions.
Their meeting was held a day before North Korea marks the 69th anniversary of its founding.
The Japanese government has expressed concern over the visit of Inoki, who has developed uniquely close ties with North Korea, just days after its sixth nuclear test and when the international community is bracing for another possible provocation by Pyongyang around Saturday's foundation day.
Inoki told Ri, who as head of the ruling party's international department is responsible for North Korea's external affairs, that he finds meaning in his visit to Pyongyang especially in a "period like this."
"I don't care about any criticism," Inoki told Kyodo News on Thursday before leaving for Pyongyang from Beijing.
The 74-year-old House of Councillors member, whose real first name is Kanji, said he thinks it necessary to keep lines of communication open with North Korea, even at a time when many countries are trying to further isolate it over its defiant pursuit of nuclear and missile development.
The former pro-wrestling star last visited North Korea one year ago also for its national foundation day, when its fifth nuclear test was conducted.
Inoki, who is on his 32nd visit to Pyongyang, has said one of the trip's other main purposes is to help facilitate "sports exchanges" between Japan and North Korea, which have no diplomatic relations.
What Inoki discussed with Ri was not immediately known. He is scheduled to stay in North Korea until Monday and may disclose some elements of their discussions afterward.