(CNN) — Pro wrestlers are being treated like rock stars in a reclusive country, and members of the international media are along for the tour with a tightly controlled agenda.
The men wrangling in the ring would almost never be international news. But this is North Korea, and these are American fighters, saying thanks to a Pyongyang crowd of 13,000.
Jon “Strongman” Anderson and mixed martial artist and former NFL player Bob Sapp may not be household names to most. In North Korea, they’re getting star treatment like they haven’t had in years — drawing crowds all over the capital, public stunts with kids, and a host country keen on any positive international press.
The North Korea they’re seeing is very different from the country described by a United Nations panel as a “brutal state,” accused of torture, slavery, and mass starvation.
“You could find some crappy political view on everything,” Anderson said.
Foreign tourists are getting a carefully controlled capital city tour — Chinese, Japanese, even an American hip-hop artist.
“The infrastructure seems really good for a third world country,” said Pras Michel, co-founder of The Fugees. “At least what we’re allowed to see.” “Well yeah, exactly,” he responded.
Japanese retired pro wrestler-turned-politician Antonio Inoki organized this event. He says “sports diplomacy” can bring North Korea closer to the outside world.
“This is not Pyongyang’s first pro wrestling festival,” Inoki said. “They had another one almost 20 years ago, and we’re told back then, most of the audience members thought the fighting was real. This time, they’re enjoying the performance, but they see right through the theatrics.”
The biggest applause of the night was for something far more familiar to this audience — a perfectly choreographed tae kwon do display.
They’re here to see what the outside world has to offer.
But this is their world. This is North Korea.