Dennis Rodman back from North Korea. Time to take him seriously?

Dennis Rodman may not fit the standard diplomat's profile, but considering the lack of any civil contact between the US and North Korea, his basketball outreach is winning some fans.

Eric Thayer/Reuters
Former NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman speaks at a news conference in New York September 9, 2013.

Dennis Rodman looks like no one’s idea of a diplomat. He’s got more piercings than a dartboard and dresses with flamboyance, as if he believes Mardi Gras is every day.

At press conferences he speaks his own language. Sometimes it makes sense. Sometimes it is composed of equal parts expletives and random nouns.

But maybe it is time to take seriously Mr. Rodman’s basketball outreach to North Korea. That is what Daniel Pinkston of the very respectable International Crisis Group believes, in any case.

Mr. Pinkston appeared with Rodman Monday in New York to argue that given the lack of any sort of civil contact between the US and North Korea, Rodman’s trips to Asia’s hermit kingdom make sense.

“This is about opening people’s minds and delivering new thinking to North Korea,” he said.

Let’s back up a bit and go over Rodman’s recent travels, shall we? It’s easier to see where the circus train is going once you know where it’s already been.

The six-time NBA champion and member of the Basketball Hall of Fame is just back from a five-day trip to North Korea, his second. It was sponsored by an Irish betting company. During the visit, Rodman again saw his friend, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Apparently he was the first foreigner to hold Kim’s new daughter. During an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian, Rodman inadvertently leaked the daughter’s name to the world press.

It’s Ju Ae.

“The Marshal Kim and I had a good time by the sea,” Rodman told The Guardian.

Arriving back in the US, Rodman and his Irish online wagering firm sponsor, Paddy Power, called a press conference on Monday to announce further plans. For one thing, Rodman intends to go back to North Korea with a team of former NBA players to play two exhibition games in January. He hopes to get former teammates and friends, such as ex-Chicago Bull Scottie Pippen, to join him.

“Michael Jordan, he won’t do it, because he’s Michael Jordan,” said Rodman.

In addition, Kim has asked him to help train North Korea’s national basketball team for the 2016 Olympics, according to Rodman. The North Korean leader has offered to let Rodman write a book about him.

Despite some previous hints to the contrary, Rodman said he won’t be getting involved in trying to gain the release of Kenneth Bae, an American sentenced to 15 years hard labor in North Korea.

The US has repeatedly called for the release of Mr. Bae, a tour organizer and guide who was convicted earlier this year of attempting to bring down the North Korean government. Last month North Korea abruptly withdrew an invitation for a US official to visit Pyongyang to discuss the matter.

Rodman said he did not want to discuss politics but raised his voice to answer a question about North Korea and human rights. The young Kim is different than his father and grandfather, Rodman insisted.

“He has a job to do, but he’s a very good guy,” said Rodman.

Rodman was holding a cigar, wearing a shirt advertising a liquor company, and a Paddy Power hat. In this context the presence at the press conference of Pinkston, the Seoul-based North East Asia Project Director of the International Crisis Group, seemed incongruous. But the latter insisted it made sense.

“It’s a little bit controversial,” Pinkston said of Rodman’s basketball outreach. But he added that people should focus on the substance and not the flamboyance.

“There is little or no risk involved in this,” he said.

The US is not providing Pyongyang with money, prestige, or any diplomatic advantage via Rodman’s trips, in Pinkston’s view. Yet person-to-person exchanges such as the forthcoming basketball trip could help sow seeds for civil society in the tightly controlled, reclusive North Korean state.

“While only a small step, these games could become a mechanism for the introduction of new ideas and information that are so sorely needed in North Korea,” writes Pinkston in an analysis published Monday on the International Crisis Group website.

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