Dennis Rodman and North Korea: 5 questions about his 'basketball diplomacy'

Dennis Rodman is in North Korea preparing for an exhibition basketball game Wednesday between a North Korean team he's coaching and former NBA players.

Kim Kwang Hyon/AP
Dennis Rodman cheers after a fellow U.S. basketball player makes a jump shot during a practice session with North Korean players in Pyongyang, North Korea on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014. Rodman came to the North Korean capital with a squad of U.S. basketball stars for an exhibition game on Jan. 8, the birthday of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Former NBA star Dennis Rodman is in North Korea to arrange a basketball exhibition game in honor of North Korean leader Kim Jung-un's birthday on Wednesday. While Mr. Rodman has attracted a media circus in the Western press, his trip is making far fewer waves in South Korea. Here's a breakdown of our top questions and answers about the trip.

Is there any actual “diplomacy” in this basketball?

Mr. Rodman himself has run hot and cold on the possibility of using his trips to push for change in North Korea, a repressive state with an abysmal human rights record.

This week’s trip is officially an athletic exhibition and nothing more. Some analysts see a bit of symbolic value in it maybe easing North Korea’s isolation somewhat. “The trip is on a small scale, but it’s important to see the potential that this type of exchange can have in improving relations between two countries. It’s a form of communication at least,” says Seoul National University professor Chang Yong-seok.

After his first trip to North Korea in February of last year, Rodman took to Twitter and appealed to Kim Jong-un to do him “a solid” and release imprisoned American missionary Kenneth Bae. He later deleted the tweet and has since avoided any comments on domestic issues in the host country.

Before boarding his flight to Pyongyang from Beijing on Monday Rodman told reporters, “I'm not a president, I'm not a politician, I'm not an ambassador. I'm just an athlete, an individual who wants to go over there and play something for the world. That's it.”

He also alluded to how the visit could “open the door,” making it possible to “talk about certain things.”

Who are Rodman’s balling companions?

The former NBA players that Rodman has brought to Pyongyang aren't exactly an A-list bunch. Among the biggest names are Kenny Anderson and Vin Baker, both of whom have suffered with financial hardship and alcohol-related issues in retirement. Also in tow is Doug Christie, a defensive specialist during his career who is better known nowadays for a series of ventures with his wife, including a reality TV series and the production of adult films.

Though he has no coaching experience, in Rodman’s own career as an NBA pro he was an exceptional player on the court and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011. He was known for his uncanny knack for grabbing rebounds, leading the league in that category seven times.

What are the North Koreans’ chances?

Rodman is ostensibly in North Korea to train the country’s national team for a drive to qualify for the 2016 Olympics, with tomorrow’s game serving as practice against a group of former pros.

But it’s unclear if the North Korean team has much of a chance of being any good. To qualify, they would have to get invited to the pre-Olympic qualifying tournament in 2016, featuring the best teams in the world who don’t already have spots in the Olympics, and then finish in the top three.

That isn’t likely to happen. North Korea hasn’t made it to a FIBA tournament since 1999, and has no homegrown professional players.

Is it ethical to work with North Korea on their terms?

Advocates for human rights in North Korea have been roundly critical of Rodman’s trips, arguing that before playing nice with the country’s leaders he should take something of a stand on Pyongyang’s human rights abuses.

"This type of trip is morally specious. It's wrong for them to travel to North Korea and just slickly avoid the issue of human rights there," says Lilian Lee of Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, an NGO in Seoul.

Paddy Power, an Irish betting company, was an official sponsor of tomorrow’s game until deciding to pull out late last month, citing concerns over the public purge and subsequent execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle Jang Song-thaek, who had been seen until then as something of a mentor to the young leader and the country’s second most powerful figure.

"It was really a reaction to the worldwide focus and total condemnation of the North Korean regime over recent events. We don’t want to be associated with that," Paddy Power said in a statement explaining its decision.

The betting company is still fulfilling their contractual obligations to provide funding for tomorrow’s game. It’s not clear if another sponsor has come forward to fund “basketball diplomacy” ventures after Paddy Power’s obligations are through.

How’s it playing in the South?

In South Korea, the trip by Rodman and his colleagues hasn’t gotten all that much airtime. On Tuesday, national headlines were still dominated by dissection of a press conference given the previous day by President Park Geun-hye and the possibility that the country’s high-speed rail system could end up being privatized.

South Korean analysts say Rodman hasn’t captured more attention here because he’s very limited in what he can accomplish while in the North. “Rodman is only a civilian and doesn’t have the authority to make any real changes. So the South Korean government and people aren’t really concerned or interested in what he does,” says Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.  

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