Can Dennis Rodman's 'basketball diplomacy' make a difference in North Korea?

Rodman's visit to North Korea comes just weeks after the country's third nuclear weapons test. Some say such trips, like that of Google chief Eric Schmidt, boost the North's positioning.

Kim Kwang Hyon/AP
Dennis Rodman, famous for his rebounding on the court and his flamboyant, quirky persona off it, is surrounded by journalists upon arrival at Pyongyang Airport, North Korea, Tuesday. Rodman arrived in Pyongyang on Tuesday, becoming an unlikely ambassador for sports diplomacy at a time of heightened tensions between the US and North Korea.

Dennis Rodman, famous for his rebounding on the court and his flamboyant, quirky persona off it, is not the typical cultural attache for the US. But that's the role he's playing this week in North Korea.

The Associated Press reports that Mr. Rodman's trip, made with three members of the Harlem Globetrotters, is a show of "basketball diplomacy" according to Vice Media founder Shane Smith, whose company is filming the trip for an HBO documentary set to air in April.

"Is sending the Harlem Globetrotters and Dennis Rodman to the DPRK strange? In a word, yes," said Smith, who is host of the upcoming series. "But finding common ground on the basketball court is a beautiful thing."

Rodman's visit to North Korea comes at a precarious time. The country conducted its third nuclear weapons test earlier this month to broad international condemnation, and Pyongyang has engaged in high-profile saber-rattling in recent weeks, including a warning this past weekend of "miserable destruction" if the United States and South Korea go ahead with a planned joint naval exercise next month.

But the AP notes that basketball might be a common ground between foreigners and the average North Korean, writing that "basketball is enormously popular in North Korea, where it's not uncommon to see basketball hoops set up in hotel parking lots or in schoolyards." North Koreans also know of and idolize Michael Jordan, with whom Rodman played in the 1990s.

(The AP adds that Rodman may not have the same level of recognition as Mr. Jordan, however. When shown a photo of the snarling, tattooed Rodman, one North Korean man said that "He looks like a monster!")

The Los Angeles Times reports that some argue Rodman's visit may be a way to offset the harsh political rhetoric between North Korea and the outside world, as it could help show that the West is not what Pyongyang portrays it to be.

“Purely a stick with no carrot is not a productive policy. It’s important to send both messages -– that the U.S. is not pleased with North Korea’s latest actions, but to leave the door open,” said Charles K. Armstrong, director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University.

“It also helps expose North Koreans to an image of the U.S. that is not the relentless negative one you see in official propaganda, showing them Americans are normal human beings -- although perhaps ‘normal human being’ doesn’t quite apply to Dennis Rodman,” he added.

But the Times notes that Rodman's visit to North Korea – like the visit of Google chairman Eric Schmidt in January – also boosts Pyongyang's positioning: “This is a calibrated message to the outside world that if diplomats don’t want to come to us, industry leaders will,” said Jae H. Ku, director of the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

The Washington Post's Max Fisher adds that Rodman and the Globetrotters are not exactly going to be wandering freely among the North Korean populace; he's effectively a tourist, and North Korean tourism is highly controlled.  Mr. Fisher cites B.R. Myers, a scholar who has studied North Korea, who discussed the topic with him several months ago.

“Many tourists — and all of the foreign tour operators — assuage their consciences by telling themselves they are furthering the cause of peace or reform by building trust, breaking down barriers, and so on,” Myers told me over e-mail. “This is nonsense.”

“For one thing,” Myers wrote, “all the tourists are talking to the same tiny bunch of hardened cadres, guides and spies. For another, individual interactions, however friendly they might be, neither reflect nor have the slightest effect on how people feel as members of one group, race or nation vis a vis another.”


"What many American travelers overlook is that by respectfully visiting North Korean tourist sites in view of the locals, they are serving to reinforce the personality cult, just as those foreigners did in earlier decades who allowed themselves to be photographed while grinning down at one of Kim Il Sung’s books. It is even worse when Americans succumb, as far too many do, to their guides’ pressure to bow to a monument or lay plastic flowers at one. To the groups of schoolchildren standing around this is a manifestation of American tribute or penance."

And one can't dismiss the possibility of a diplomatic misstep by the visiting basketballers. Rodman has already indicated that he may not be fully versed on the Koreas, tweeting that "Maybe I'll run into the Gangnam Style dude while I'm here," referring to internationally famous rapper Psy.  Psy is from South Korea.

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