Dennis Rodman: In defense of his North Korean adventure

Former NBA star Dennis Rodman is in North Korea for a basketball game, gathering no small amount of criticism. But a few experts say the trip can only help – even if just a little.

David Guttenfelder/AP
Dennis Rodman stands up to leave after he and fellow US basketball players completed a television interview at a Pyongyang hotel in North Korea Tuesday.

Should Dennis Rodman’s latest trip to North Korea be welcomed or condemned? That’s a hot topic at the moment as the bestudded former National Basketball Association star readies for an exhibition basketball game in Pyongyang.

Since his first visit to the hermit kingdom of East Asia in February, Mr. Rodman has struck up an unlikely friendship with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Now he’s back in-country with a 12-member team of retired NBA journeymen and other US hoop semi-stars. They’re set to play a team of North Koreans on Wednesday, which is reportedly Kim’s birthday. It’s all about engaging in a little light sports diplomacy, according to Rodman.

“One day this door is going to open,” he said Tuesday in an interview with CNN from Pyongyang.

Unfortunately, that’s not all Rodman said. After all, this is a guy who dresses as if every day was Mardi Gras and speaks his own language, which seems half expletives and half random nouns. Asked by CNN’s Chris Cuomo if he’d bring up with his friend Kim the subject of Kenneth Bae, an American citizen long imprisoned in North Korea on vague charges, Rodman at first implied that Bae was guilty of something.

“You know what he did? In this country?” Rodman ranted.

Then he yelled in his inimitable incoherent deep rasp for several minutes.

“We have to go back to America and take the abuse!” was one of his understandable lines.

OK, here’s the problem. Many human rights activists and US officials think it’s wrong for Rodman to go to North Korea and pal around with a guy who happens to run one of more repressive regimes in human history. Didn’t Kim just execute his own uncle?

“I don’t think we should ignore the real suffering in this gulag state. And Dennis Rodman wants to go there and play basketball. It would be like inviting Adolf Hitler to lunch,” said Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democratic member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, in a Monday news conference on the subject.

Plus, it’s Dennis Rodman we are talking about. It’s not as if he’s going to be giving North Koreans a glimpse of what typical Americans are like. He isn’t even representative of US basketball stars. NBA commissioner David Stern has made it clear the league disapproves of the venture.

“Although sports in many instances can be helpful in bridging cultural divides, this is not one of them,” said Mr. Stern in a statement.

But here’s the counter argument: It’s North Korea we’re talking about. The US probably knows less about what really happens in North Korea than in any other country on earth. And they have nuclear weapons! So, you know, every bit helps.

The presence of a tall, exotic foreigner in photos next to their leader is unlikely to make any difference in North Koreans’ allegiance, or lack thereof, to the state, argues Andrei Lankov, a Korea studies specialist, in an article today at NKNews.org. If anything, it may give them a slightly better view of the US. The official North Korean narrative about America has long stressed its oppression of blacks. Rodman’s status as an unofficial emissary in this context might be surprising.

Of course, Rodman and his team members and entourage will only actually speak with a limited number of elite North Korean athletes and officials. But you have to start changing attitudes somewhere, a drop at a time, according to Mr. Lankov. It is not as if official diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang is making progress.

“While Rodman’s activities are not going to change much, let us hope that many more Western athletes, scientists and artists will follow him to Pyongyang to participate in all kinds of exchanges and projects (big and small),” writes Lankov. “Isolation will not change North Korea – only interaction with the outside world gives us some reason to hope.”

As International Crisis Group East Asia expert Daniel Pinkston wrote last September, Rodman’s basketball diplomacy could become a mechanism for the introduction of new ideas and information into one of the most closed societies in the world.

The alternative is isolation. Thus despite Rodman’s flamboyance his trip “should be encouraged since it comes with very little risk and cost,” Mr. Pinkston wrote in an analysis for ICG.

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