Now that the hoopla has begun to die down over Kim Jong-un’s execution of his uncle—reportedly Mafia-style with machine guns—the Young General is anticipating his athletes shooting a few hoops under the expert tutoring of Dennis Rodman. Kim Jong-un’s best American buddy has just arrived back in North Korea for his third visit of the year. The North Korean athletes—no pressure here!—are in training for an exhibition game which Rodman is organizing with American professional basketball players, scheduled to be held in Pyongyang on January 8—not by coincidence Kim Jong-un’s 31st birthday.
Rodman is anything but modest about his role in this upcoming event. He told the Associated Press in a telephone interview, “I’m going to bring American players over there. Yes, I am. I’m going to be the most famous person in the world when you see American people holding hands and hoping the doors can be opened.” The self-proclaimed “bad boy” with the dyed green hair seems a perfect counterpart for Kim Jong-un. After all, every circus needs a clown. And Rodman is the most noteworthy American to meet personally with the Young General since his assumption of power two years ago. Rodman revealed after the conclusion of his second trip in September that he was even allowed to hold Kim Jong-un’s baby daughter, Ju-ae. It is a rare honor and sign of trust to allow a foreigner to hold the embodiment of the fourth generation of the “Baekdu bloodline” of direct descent from North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung. Rodman, by the way, described the man who murdered his uncle as “a good dad.”
Kim Jong-un also benefits from this Odd Couple relationship. Dennis Rodman’s visits and memorable, if rather bizarre, quotes generate the kind of international media frenzy that Pyongyang’s young ruler seems to crave—without having to resort to missile launches or threats of nuclear annihilation. This theater of the absurd also belies the misguided enthusiasm about the possibility of an “enlightened” new leader that was generated when Kim Jong-un came to power following his father's sudden death in December 2011. Kim, it was said, had studied in Switzerland, liked European rock music, and was a basketball fan—especially of the fabled Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. When Michael Jordan reportedly had the good sense to pass on the opportunity to join the Harlem Globetrotters in their Pyongyang visit last February, fellow Bulls alumnus Dennis Rodman signed up and became the poster boy for "basketball diplomacy."
The New York Post carried a story indicating that Rodman, at the end of his first sortie into North Korea, went completely gaga over his “friend for life.” The paper reported last March 5 that he was "escorted out of the Time Hotel in Midtown on Sunday after spending hours at the restaurant bar loudly telling anyone who would listen about the North Korean dictator. ‘He kept saying what a nice guy Kim is, and how Kim just wants to talk to President Obama about basketball. He was waving around a signed copy of the dictator’s huge manifesto, telling everyone they should read it.’” No Red Guard, waving Chairman Mao's little red book during the frenzied height of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, could have done a better job.
Under the absurd surface of this Through the Looking-Glass world, one can glean some important insights about the Kim family’s North Korea. First there is the utter hypocrisy concerning the charges of womanizing, boozing, conspicuous consumption, and corruption leveled against Kim Jong-un’s “scum of the earth” late uncle. After his second visit to North Korea in September, Rodman described in detail his seven-day visit to Kim Jong-un’s pleasure island to the tabloid The Sun. Rodman depicted a world worthy of Marie Antoinette with constant cocktails, jet skis, horseback riding and luxury yachts. "It's like going to Hawaii or Ibiza, but he's the only one that lives there," Rodman said. Then there is the reported ready availability of attractive women—the Kim regime apparently maintains special troupes of “entertainers” for just such purposes. It is unlikely that poor old Uncle Jang, no matter to what degree he was guilty of boozing and womanizing, ever spent a week like the one which Dennis Rodman described.
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).