North Korea: the celebrity circuit's unlikeliest outpost

Kyoko HASEGAWA, Richard CARTER
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Former basketball star Dennis Rodman says he calls North Korea's Kim Jong-Un "kid" all the time and has described him as "awesome"

What do a flamboyant wrestler-turned-senator from Japan, a former NBA star with a penchant for tattoos and a French comedian with a string of convictions to his name have in common?

They all form part of a colourful cast of characters that have made well-publicised trips to North Korea, sparking media fascination amid a thirst for information about the hermit kingdom.

Experts say the visits are mainly motivated by self-publicity, but in the absence of conventional ties they can, in some cases, offer a rare point of contact at a time when nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula are at fever pitch.

Japan's Antonio Inoki, unmistakable from his outsized chin and trademark tie and red scarf -- even in summer -- was the latest unorthodox foreign visitor to North Korea for a five-day mission.

It was the 32nd trip to Pyongyang for Inoki, who stands 1.9 metres (six feet three inches) tall and shot to fame in 1976 for battling then world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali in a zany wrestler-versus-boxer bout in Tokyo.

Now a lawmaker in Japan's upper house of parliament, Inoki also forced the government to take an official position about aliens when he tabled a question in a budgetary committee saying he had seen a mysterious flying object disappearing over the horizon.

Inoki has said he wants to "contribute to world peace through sports" and has arranged martial arts and wrestling festivals in North Korea, often meeting high-ranking officials during his visits.

During his latest trip this week, he said he briefly met North Korea's ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam and his visit merited a series of dispatches from the official KCNA news agency.

Another Japanese personality, a sushi chef who goes by the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto, claimed last year that Pyongyang's young leader himself picked him up from the airport during his last visit.

Former basketball star Dennis Rodman has also hit the headlines in recent years for his trips to North Korea where he has described holiday plans with Kim and dining with him on a huge yacht.

The heavily tattooed Rodman, who once dated Madonna and was married to model and actress Carmen Electra, says he calls Kim "kid" all the time and has described him as "awesome".

On one visit with a team of fellow former NBA players in 2014, he publicly sang "Happy Birthday" to the young leader -- Marilyn Monroe-style.

The most recent visitor was controversial French comic Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala, who announced on his YouTube channel that he was going to North Korea to appear at a "peace festival."

Pictures on his Twitter only showed him at the Demilitarised Zone separating the two Koreas -- a regular stop for tour groups to the North.

Dieudonne sparked outrage -- and a two-month suspended jail sentence -- in France by saying he sympathised with one of the jihadists involved in the January 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris.

- 'The Worm' returned -

Officials dismiss the trips as a sideshow.

Asked about Inoki's recent visit, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga pointedly reminded journalists that Tokyo has a travel ban in place for North Korea, urging the politician to "act appropriately".

Washington has also sought to distance itself from Rodman's trips with a state department official saying after one trip that the NBA star known as the "Worm" had "never been a player in our diplomacy".

However, Japanese television news provided blanket coverage of Inoki's trip and the visits continue to prompt interest, given the lack of details leaking out about life in North Korea.

Toshimitsu Shigemura, professor emeritus of Waseda University, told AFP that visits like Rodman's were more about internal manoeuvres in North Korea than under-the-table diplomacy.

"These people are invited by a member of the leader's entourage who wants to scratch the back of the leader. So there is no diplomatic meaning to that. It is a reflection of North Korea's domestic politics," he said.

Daniel Sneider, an expert in East Asian studies from the US-based Stanford University, agreed the visits were "useless from the standpoint of serious back-channel negotiations".

"They mainly benefit the people who want to cash in on their minor celebrity role.

"But they can have some small use, sometimes, in giving us a small window into Kim Jong-Un and his close circle," he added.

A good example of this came in 2013 when the news that Kim Jong-Un had a second child came not from the CIA or Pyongyang but... none other than Dennis Rodman.