North Korea enigma: American released, uncle executed ... enter Dennis Rodman?

Dennis Rodman returns to North Korea Monday for 'basketball diplomacy,' but experts are still puzzled by the execution of an uncle to leader Kim Jong-un. Can the 'Worm' turn up some answers?

Jason Mojica/VICE Media/AP/File
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (l.) and former NBA star Dennis Rodman watch North Korean and US players in an exhibition basketball game in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this Feb. 28 file photo. Rodman arrived in Pyongyang on Monday with three members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.

North Korea remains as enigmatic as ever, releasing an American Korean War veteran detained at the end of an organized visit to the hermetic country one moment and executing the longtime, behind-the-scenes power and former trusted uncle of leader Kim Jong-un the next.

But amid all the turmoil – and speculation over whether it’s all a show of force on the young Mr. Kim’s part, or signs of weakness and instability – one constant remains: Former National Basketball Association star Dennis Rodman is sticking with his BFF Kim.

Mr. Rodman, who described himself as Kim’s “friend for life” during a high-profile trip to Pyongyang earlier this year, plans to return this week to help train the North Korean basketball team. On what will be his third trip to the insular country, considered by many regional experts to be among the world’s most repressive regimes and a dangerously unpredictable fledgling nuclear power, Rodman plans to shoot a documentary of his coaching stint.

Also in the works for January is an unprecedented exhibition basketball game that would pit the Rodman-coached North Korean ballers against a roster of former NBA players – although the names of the latter have yet to be released.

Rodman says he has high hopes for his “basketball diplomacy,” but at the same time he eschews any political dimension to his North Korea travels. “Kim Jong Un & North Korean people are basketball fans. I love everyone,” he recently tweeted. “Period. End of story.”

Still, more than a few US diplomats and North Asia experts would love to plant a few questions in Rodman’s ear on the chance he might casually run them by Kim, should the two again share courtside seats.

For example: Why did the regime release American Korean War veteran Merrill Newman earlier this month after detaining him in October as he was about to leave the country after an organized trip? Yet, why do the North Koreans hold on to American Kenneth Bae, who was sentenced in May to 15 years in prison for what authorities said was the American Christian’s attempt to overthrow the regime?

Another casual query between high-fives over slam-dunks might be why activity has recently accelerated around the North’s nuclear materials complex at Yongbyon – including its plutonium production reactor?

And, an even more intriguing question Rodman might ask Kim that experts would love to hear the answer to: Why did you do away with Uncle Jang?

Last week, North Korean state television showed video of the man considered to be the second-most-powerful in the regime, Kim’s uncle and mentor Jang Song Thaek, being dragged from a Workers' Party politburo meeting as rows of stone-faced officials looked on. By Friday, the North’s official news agency reported that the “despicable human scum” and “dog” had been executed.

The chilling act suggests a young and suspicious leader purging the government of any challenge, real or imagined, to his authority, many experts say. But they also wonder if the liquidation of the kind of experience that Jang brought to the regime will actually weaken the 30-something Kim (outside experts are not certain of his age), who was educated in Switzerland and has a weak spot for Western culture?

Calling Jang’s execution “an act of brutality but not of strength,” a senior State Department official said that such an “extraordinary” removal of a mentor and repository of regime experience risked accomplishing the opposite of what Kim apparently sought.

With Jang’s removal “goes a large share of such expertise in trade and investment as North Korea possessed,” says the official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss the issue beyond the official US position. “It, to me, does not augur well for Kim Jong-un’s ability to achieve his stated goal of making North Korea a strong and prosperous country.”

Kim may be trying to drive home the point – to both his domestic and international audiences – that he is the guy in charge, regional experts say. But they also wonder if Kim’s actions suggest he faces more challenges from North Korea’s two poles of power – the military and the Workers' Party – than meet the eye.

Just last year, Kim ousted the Army’s top general, suggesting that he is attacking top powers within the country’s dominant institutions – but, so far, without indicating what comes in their place, says Victor Cha of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Rodman seems unlikely to broach such topics with Kim. Still, if the planned faceoff between North Korea and former NBA players actually takes place in January, no doubt experts will speculate just as much on what that says about a baffling North Korea.

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