North Korea's special guests: First a Google executive, then Dennis Rodman

The fact that North Korea is getting to host well-known personalities from abroad is a PR plus for the regime, say analysts.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (c.), his wife Ri Sol-ju (l.) and former NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman (r.) talk in Pyongyang in this undated photo released on Friday. Before departing, Rodman told Pyongyang that leader Kim Jong-un, reported to have a great love for basketball, was 'really awesome' and that he and his father and grandfather were 'great leaders.'

As former NBA star Dennis Rodman wrapped up his week-long trip to North Korea today, the latest high profile visit of a Westerner to North Korea, observers are asking if the visit suggests that North Korea is becoming a bit more open to the outside world.

Before departing, Mr. Rodman told Pyongyang that leader Kim Jong-un, reported to have a great love for basketball, was “really awesome” and that he and his father and grandfather were “great leaders,” according to the Associated Press.

Rodman, who has long had a reputation for eccentricity and questionable behavior, was traveling with three members of the Harlem Globetrotters and a crew from Vice Media, which was shooting an episode for an HBO series and had plans for “basketball diplomacy.”

The high profile visits come on the heels of Google executive Eric Schmidt’s tour to North Korea in January. And while they may look promising as they provide avenues for diplomacy that the US and the North have not seen before, in the short term it’s mostly just a public relations boon to Pyongyang at home, say analysts.

“Ultimately, they [North Korea] come out ahead because they can portray it as the world coming to pay tribute, or at least to be there,” says Aidan Foster-Carter, honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University in London.

Mr. Foster-Carter is quick to point out that these visits do not likely represent a substantial change in the nature of the North Korean state, which is accused of serious human rights abuses, and ignores international condemnation with its tests of nuclear devices and long-range rockets.  

“It’s not a sign of a broader change,” he says. “If anything, it’s part of the process of the UN sanctions, showing that even though North Korea doesn’t care to talk to the US, high-profile Americans are willing to come to them.”

According to analysis of satellite images released this past week by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, one of the country’s main prison camps has expanded significantly over past several years, including the period since Kim Jong-un took over from his father, the late Kim Jong-il, after he passed away in late 2011.
The analysis found that Camp No. 25, in the difficult-to-access northeast of the country, has grown 72 percent since 2003 and now has a much larger number of guards.

North Korea is believed to have stepped up its security to prevent escape, both from prisons and across the border into China. Even as North Korea comes to allow more interesting characters in, there are still many who aren’t allowed out. 

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