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Dennis Rodman’s Ding Dong Diplomacy

9:01 AM, Dec 20, 2013 • By DENNIS P. HALPIN
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Second, there is the contrast to the world outside of the Kim version of Versailles. These seven days of pleasure occurred, after all, in the land of the “arduous march,” where adults still demonstrate, according to international health NGOs, stunted growth and mental and physical deficiencies directly related to the Great Famine of the mid-1990s. This is also the land described by Michael Kirby, the head of the U.N. Independent Commission of Inquiry into North Korea’s human rights violations, as “the like of which I don’t think I’ve seen or read of since the Khmer Rouge [in Cambodia] and the Nazi atrocities during the second world war.”

Third, there is Rodman’s seemingly involvement, and then noninvolvement, with the case of detained American citizen Kenneth Bae. Bae, a cause for major consular and humanitarian concern, has been detained in North Korea for over a year and has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor despite reported serious health problems. His alleged crime was engaging in illicit (in North Korea) missionary activity. Rodman had injected himself on May 7, by tweeting that “I’m calling on the Supreme Leader of North Korea or as I call him ‘Kim,’ to do me solid and cut Kenneth Bae loose.”

The U.S. special envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues, Robert King, however, had his invitation to visit Pyongyang to hold consultations on Bae’s release abruptly cancelled on the eve of Rodman’s second North Korean visit. Koreans have an expression by which they refer to their country as “the land of eastern etiquette.” Thus this calculated cancellation was not just a rebuff to King, a respected veteran of both the executive and legislative branches; it was a deliberate gesture of disrespect to America. After he was used to push Ambassador King aside in September, however, Rodman dropped Mr. Bae like a hot potato. Returning from Pyongyang he proclaimed: "I'm not there to be a diplomat. I'm there to go there and just have a good time, sit with [Kim] and his family, and that's pretty much it." He added “Ask Obama about that. Ask Hillary Clinton.” Mr. Bae’s family has adopted the somewhat risky strategy of going public to ask for Rodman’s assistance in gaining their family member’s release during his current visit. Pyongyang has seemingly signaled, however, that Kenneth Bae is now a pawn in a larger diplomatic board game.

Rodman seems to think his “basketball diplomacy” is following in the footsteps of the "ping pong diplomacy" that broke the ice in Sino-American relations over four decades ago. But such is clearly not the case. The original "ping-pong" diplomacy ultimately paved the way for a visit to Beijing by American President Richard Nixon. As the story goes, the impetus for this diplomacy originated with a missed bus ride by an American player after a practice session during the 31st World Table Tennis Championship in Nagoya, Japan, in 1971. An offer of a bus ride from the Chinese team and the gift of a silk-screen portrait of the Huangshan Mountains from one of the Chinese team members began a thaw in relations after more than two decades of hostility. Leaders on both sides, including Nixon, Kissinger, Mao and Zhou Enlai, were looking for just such a fortuitous opportunity to move relations forward. The American team accepted an invitation to visit China and President Nixon followed a year later. The rest is history.

It is not likely, however, that President Obama will follow Dennis Rodman to Pyongyang. The State Department seems embarrassed by his antics. And given the recent case of the Korean War veteran detained by Pyongyang, any American basketball player considering accompanying Mr. Rodman to Pyongyang in January might want to first do a family background check on possible ancestors who participated in the Korean War. Pyongyang’s security apparatus apparently checks on family backgrounds to determine whom they consider naughty or nice—and there is a lingering hostility to those who served America honorably in Korea.

Dennis Rodman's Pyongyang adventures do not, therefore, seem to reflect the breakthrough "ping pong diplomacy" of four decades ago. They appear, in fact, to be nothing more than ding dong diplomacy.

Dennis P. Halpin is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS (Johns Hopkins).

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