Why Dennis Rodman? Why North Korea?
March 1, 2013
Photo Courtesy of Steve Lipofsky Basketballphoto.com
Dennis Rodman, a retired National Basketball Association (NBA) player and former Chicago Bulls star, arrived in North Korea on February 26th along with three members of the Harlem Globetrotters, Moose Weekes, Buckets Blakes, and Bull Bullard. The group travelled privately as a part of a VICE production which is scheduled to air on HBO. In an uncanny event on February 28th, the eccentric Rodman sat down with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to watch a game between the three Globetrotters and the North Korean U-18 dream team. VICE spokespeople have dubbed the trip “basketball diplomacy” and Rodman delivered an address following the game before reportedly heading over to Kim’s house for a reception.
Q1: How would you describe the significance of this trip?
A1: Bizarre. In North Korea, the only thing that matters is the Kim Family and it just so happens that the family has a love of American basketball, especially NBA teams and players. The late Kim Jong-il was a big fan of the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan, which became well-known to the world when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright presented the North Korean leader with an autographed basketball by “His Airness” in October 2000. This gift now sits in the Great Hall of Gifts to the North Korean leader (reportedly sharing a showcase area with a gold gun that was given by the late Saddam Hussein). The Dear Leader apparently passed his love of the game to his son, who as a teenager studying in Europe reportedly had posters of Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers players plastered on the walls of his flat. For North Korean internal propaganda, the receiving of such international celebrities is spun as a “homage" paid to the leadership. The fact that this visit occurs only days after the third North Korean nuclear test is probably viewed by North Korean propagandists as good fodder for the argument that the world has accepted the regime as a nuclear weapons state. It is also a slap in the face of the Obama administration, which has sent written entreaties and emissaries to North Korea but has received only missile tests and nuclear tests in return.
Q2: Will this basketball diplomacy help ease tensions?
A2: Not really. Sports diplomacy is most effective when the diplomatic currents are starting to run in a positive direction. For example, ping-pong diplomacy was helpful to Nixon's opening to China but largely because Nixon and Kissinger had already begun a quiet process of rapprochement with Beijing. The U.S. ping-pong team's visit to Beijing precipitated a groundswell of public interest and support that helped move the diplomatic process forward. In such instances, sports can help to accelerate the process and create momentum that a normal diplomatic demarche could not in terms of good will that supports the process. Currently, Rodman's visit comes at a time when relations are at an all-time low and the UN Security Council is seeking a resolution and sanctions to condemn the February 2013 nuclear test. Sport and diplomacy could not be further apart at the moment.
Q3: Why Rodman?
A3: Perhaps the HBO documentary filmmakers tried to get Michael Jordan to participate but ended up with Dennis Rodman instead. His five championships certainly make him a credible NBA star, but one wonders whether the North Koreans understand Rodman's cross-dressing and body-piercing image as one of the quintessential "bad boys" of basketball. It would seem bizarrely poetic that he and the new unpredictable leader of North Korea be pictured together.
Victor Cha holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Marie DuMond is a research associate with the Korea Chair at CSIS.
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