Reclusive North Korea in the past month refused to hear foreign entreaties not to test a nuclear bomb, but its leader found time to entertain the mercurial basketball hall-of-famer Dennis Rodman. The latest private trip by a high-profile American to North Korea has triggered scorn in much of Washington, which fears undercutting the message to the totalitarian state that it is isolated and must change behavior.
However, advocates for engagement argue that greater exposure to Americans may ultimately be the best way to bring change to North Korea, which vilifies the US and says its nuclear program is in response to US “hostility.”
Rodman watched the famed Harlem Globetrotters next to visibly delighted young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, before the two sipped drinks.
The tattooed ex-NBA star called Kim an “awesome kid” and told him: “You have a friend for life.”
The US Department of State, while saying it had no position on private citizens’ travels, took issue with Rodman’s praise for the leader of a country with “quite possibly the worst human rights situation in the world.”
“Clearly, you’ve got the regime spending money to wine and dine foreign visitors when they should be feeding their own people. So this isn’t really a time for business as usual” with Pyongyang, Department of State spokesman Patrick Ventrell said.
In an earlier era, the Department of State itself tried basketball diplomacy. Madeleine Albright, who in 2000 became the only US secretary of state to visit North Korea, presented then-leader Kim Jong-il — Kim Jong-un’s late father — with a basketball signed by Rodman’s legendary teammate Michael Jordan.
Robert Carlin, a longtime US policymaker on North Korea who accompanied Albright, said that the US wanted to give a unique gift and that Kim Jong-il understood that the basketball was meant to show goodwill.
Carlin, now a visiting scholar at Stanford University, said that Kim Jong-un’s welcome to Rodman sent its own signal to North Koreans taught for decades that the US is an enemy.
“It certainly looks like the message that was going out from Kim Jong-un to his people is that Americans aren’t so bad, we can cooperate with them, we can sit next to them and we can cooperate in sports,” Carlin said.
He downplayed the impact of Rodman’s remarks, saying that he was an athlete speaking off the cuff, and hoped that the visit and possible future exchanges could ease Americans’ isolation from North Korea.
“How many people have had dinner with Kim Jong-un and had the chance to talk to him? It doesn’t mean you have to praise everything about him, but Dennis Rodman now knows more than anyone in the US government about what it’s like to sit next to Kim Jong-un,” Carlin said.
Rodman’s visit has drawn mostly ridicule in US media. It was unclear whether Rodman was familiar with the all-encompassing state control in North Korea, which surely would never put his frequently dyed hair on its list of approved styles.
L. Gordon Flake, a North Korea expert and executive director of the Mansfield Foundation, asked whether Rodman would have visited apartheid South Africa, which was widely boycotted by foreign athletes and celebrities.
“Now that he’s coming and praising the Kims as an ‘awesome’ family, with absolutely no understanding of the horrors of that regime and of the gulags, you can imagine from the human rights perspective that should be concerning,” Flake said.
Flake doubted Rodman would have a major impact, but said that — even in a country that tolerates no political dissent — Kim Jong-un could come off as frivolous to hungry North Koreans.
“When Rodman says that Kim Jong-Un is an ‘awesome kid’ and you see him looking like a little stuffed animal, I’ve got to wonder if that will backfire,” Flake said, referring to Kim’s portly physique.
Rodman’s visit came six weeks after Google chairman Eric Schmidt visited North Korea accompanied by former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who has long maintained contacts with Pyongyang.