North Korea, Wrestling, and Rodman-Free Diplomacy

More than a dozen pro athletes are converging on Pyongyang this week for a sports extravaganza being billed as "The International Pro-Wrestling Festival." Participants include Bob "the Beast" Sapp, a former American pro football player who became a celebrity in Japan as a mixed martial artist; American rapper Pras Michel, a founding member of the band The Fugees, is attending as a spectator. Leading the trip is Antonio Inoki, a colorful 71-year-old ex-pro-wrestler-turned-politician.  

This is the second wave of major athletes to visit North Korea since Kim Jong Un took power in December 2011 --  and will almost certainly prove to be a more sober affair the first wave:  ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman's three trips to the country, most recently in January. Rodman's trips -- especially the first, which the media company Vice organized for February 2013-- were about the spectacle of America's battiest athlete (along with other basketball players) visiting the world's most-repressive country. Any news that came out of those trips -- about Kim's baby daughter, and about Kim's desire to talk with Obama -- was subsumed by the absurdity of the bromance formed between Rodman and Kim.

Inoki's trip, by contrast, could actually prove fruitful. For one, Inoki is a legitimate actor in Tokyo. A member of parliament, Inoki's trip actually aims to improve relations between North Korea and Japan and comes shortly after Inoki led a group of Japanese lawmakers to Pyongyang. Inoki, who has been to North Korea roughly 30 times, has far more experience negotiating with the country than Rodman.

Perhaps more importantly, North Korea's relationship with Japan is far less complicated than its relationship with the United States. Pyongyang believes the United States wants to destroy North Korea; but does not seem to see Japan as an existential threat. And although the United States wants North Korea to denuclearize -- a highly unlikely outcome -- Tokyo's ask is much simpler: it wants to know about the Japanese kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. The fate of the abductees, who may number in the dozens or even hundreds, is a huge issue in Japan -- far more important, comparatively, than the fate of the three Americans detained in North Korea.

Famously, Inoki is no stranger to hostage issues. In 1990, "he helped secure the release of 41 Japanese hostages in Iraq during the Gulf War after meeting Saddam Hussein's son and staging a wrestling show in Baghdad," according to AFP.

So will this trip have any effect? In May, Pyongyang agreed to re-investigate what happened to the Japanese hostages; Pyongyang will probably reveal  the results of the probe in September. If Tokyo likes what it sees, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could make a path-breaking trip to Pyongyang; with Inoki able to take credit for smoothing out the road.

The United States might get something out of it too: Michel is friends with President Barack Obama, although he told Reuters that Obama may not know he is visiting Pyongyang, Michel would be a far more trustworthy interlocutor than Rodman.


Subverting the Ice Bucket Challenge With a Bucket Full of Rubble

On the second day of a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, Palestinians are finding a use for the rubble that seven weeks of fighting has deposited on their streets: They're dumping it over their heads.

The "rubble bucket challenge," a twist on the "ice bucket challenge" that has raised more than $80 million for ALS research in a month, encourages those who support the cause of Palestinian statehood to demonstrate their solidarity by posting a video of themselves pouring sand and dust, rather than ice water, over their heads. Jordanian comedian Mahmoud Darwazeh thought it up when fellow comedian Nikolas Khoury issued him the "ice bucket challenge" earlier this summer.

"When I uploaded my 'rubble bucket challenge' video, the only videos going viral were the ALS ice bucket challenge," Darwazeh wrote in an email Wednesday, Aug. 27. "I sat down with myself and thought about how I can bring awareness to what's happening to Gaza's children in a way that is most relevant to what is actually happening to them. I came up with the idea from my heart."

Maysam Yusef, a university student in Gaza, caught wind of the video and thought it could become a movement. She contacted Darwazeh to ask for permission to start a Facebook page called the Rubble Bucket Challenge. It garnered more than 7,000 "likes" in just five days.

The ALS stunt raises research money for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the degenerative nerve illness better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Participants are asked to either donate $10 and pour ice water over their heads or donate $100 and stay dry. Videos of Americans and celebrities participating in the challenge have become a phenomenon and raised record sums for the ALS Association.

But as good philanthropy goes, there are far more effective ways to make a difference than funding research into a rare disease with little hope of a medical breakthrough in the near future. "[T]here are thousands of charitable organizations out there that could really use the money going to ALS -- could use it to make the world a better place today," Felix Salmon wrote in Slate over the weekend. "Some are medicine-based, treating the sick around the world; others might be in areas such as education, or clean water, or animal rescue, or the arts, or simply just giving money to poor people."

As awful a disease as ALS may be, there are other problems in the world that affect a far greater number of people. Only two in 100,000 Americans will ever be diagnosed with ALS.

What will and won't go "viral" in the social media sense is difficult to predict, and issues such as potable water don't have viral marketing budgets. So many activists have decided that if you can't beat them, join them, and have adapted the ALS challenge like Darwazeh did. In India, they're using a rice bucket and challenging Indians to donate a bucket of rice to someone in need. In the United States, some Californians have dumped sand over their heads to drive home the severity of the three-year drought there.

According to the World Food Program, India is home to a quarter of the world's undernourished people. California declared a drought emergency in January. In Gaza, a 50-day war has left more than 2,200 dead.

The rubble bucket challenge doesn't ask for donations.

"Our campaign does not aim at collecting donations because the money will not bring the so many innocent souls back to life and we cannot begin to rebuild Gaza unless the Israeli attacks stop," Yusef wrote in an email. "Our campaign is more of a social media revolution where people show their solidarity with Gaza and publicly reject the killing of civilians."

When Palestinian journalist Ayman Aloul took the challenge on Monday, he stood in front of a destroyed building with dust billowing around him.

"We looked for a bucket of water, but the use of water is more important than to empty over our heads," he said. "We do not have water, but this is what we have."

Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images