Dennis Rodman in North Korea: Has he finally gone too far?

Former NBA player Dennis Rodman's act is wearing thin even for those trying to see the potential positives in his sports diplomacy overture in North Korea.

Kim Kwang Hyon/AP
Dennis Rodman sings 'Happy Birthday' to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, seated above in the stands, before an exhibition basketball game at an indoor stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014.

Is Dennis Rodman doing his best to destroy the chance of any good coming from his visit to North Korea? We ask that because his behavior in Pyongyang seems almost intended to wreck his credibility back home.

First, he implied that Kenneth Bae may be guilty of something. Mr. Bae is an American citizen now imprisoned in North Korea on vague charges, and when asked Monday by a CNN interviewer whether he’d raise Bae’s status with North Korean leaders, Mr. Rodman just ranted.

“You know what he did? In this country?” Rodman shouted back to CNN’s Chris Cuomo.

Then at Wednesday’s exhibition game between a team of former NBA players and North Korea’s national team Rodman sang “Happy Birthday” to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. It came across as kind of weird, as officials began rhythmic applause while Rodman crooned.

Overall Rodman’s evident anger and defensiveness over his trip is alienating even analysts who weigh both the positive and negative that could come from sports diplomacy between adversaries.

“OK, Dennis Rodman in North Korea isn’t funny anymore,” tweeted Washington Post foreign affairs blogger Max Fisher.

Also, the Rodman-led US team lost to the North Koreans in the first half. (They mixed teams for the second half.) Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising, given that the scattering of NBA stars in the US squad were all long retired, and the North Koreans looked young and fit.

Look, Tuesday we defended the Rodman trip as a possible good thing. It is not as if there is any momentum in US-North Korean relations that Rodman could undo. Plus, the presence of a once-famous American athlete next to Kim Jong-un won’t further boost the latter’s status at home. The Pyongyang regime’s grip on power seems pretty firm.

If the Rodman trip could open the mind of even one member of the North Korean elite just a little bit, wouldn’t that be positive? As The Guardian notes Wednesday, the US-China ping-pong diplomacy of the 1970s owed much to the courage of one Chinese table tennis player, Zhuang Zedong, who talked to American counterparts when it was forbidden.

Also, does anyone remember that the New York Philharmonic visited North Korea in 2008, and that music director Lorrin Maazel said the US was in no position to criticize Pyongyang’s human rights record, given its own abuses? Just asking.

But we recognize that this is a subject open to lots of debate, and right now we are ready to throw in the towel. Rodman is just too fraught. Whatever his impact on the North Koreans, he’s having a very negative impact back in the US. That could only make it harder to muster a domestic consensus for any agreement aimed at scaling back Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

“I think he’s an idiot,” Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said of Rodman yesterday on “Piers Morgan Live.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney was more diplomatic.

“Sports exchanges can be valuable, sports diplomacy can be valuable, and it’s something that we pursue in many places around the world,” said Carney at Tuesday’s press briefing.

But of Rodman’s contentious words about Kenneth Bae, Carney added that “I’m not going to dignify that outburst with a response.”

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