Rodman’s helpful tripsDennis Rodman, the former NBA professional basketball player, has drawn the attention of Western media this past week for his third trip to North Korea. This former bad boy of basketball, nicknamed the “Worm,” was famous for his energetic style of play, multicolored hairstyles, and off-court theatrics. He has long since retired from the game but has found new fame in his self-professed friendship with North Korea’s mercurial leader, Kim Jong-un.
Rodman was in Pyongyang to help select a North Korean national basketball team that would then play against a group of former NBA players next month on the occasion of Kim’s 31st birthday in a goodwill game. Predictably, the media has attacked Rodman’s activities, saying they are self-serving and even callous, as the NBA star refuses to acknowledge the political realities of befriending the world’s worst dictator. Rodman’s response is that questions about American Kenneth Bae’s one year-plus detainment or the North’s unchecked nuclear ambitions should not be directed at him but toward President Obama. His only message in this regard is that Obama should “call Kim.”
It is clear that this odd couple is using each other. Rodman seeks the publicity for himself and his former sponsor, an Irish gaming outfit called Paddy Power. And Kim wants to project an air of confidence and control only one week after he brutally executed his uncle amid internal turmoil within the Korean Workers’ Party over his rule.
Is it really that bad for Rodman to go to North Korea? I know that most of my friends in the media and in the expert community in Washington, D.C., might laugh at this contrarian question. Seriously, though, I think it has benefits.
First, we have learned things about the opaque North Korean leadership from Rodman’s trips. No American has spent more time with Kim Jong-un than him. The footage of Kim with Rodman aired on the HBO Vice documentary is probably the most live footage that we have of the young leader.
Because of Rodman’s trips, we have learned Kim’s exact age (he turns 31 next January). Because of Rodman’s trips, we learned that Kim had a baby daughter (we even know her name). We also saw that Kim Kye-kwan, the former six-party negotiator, had clearly elevated his position during Rodman’s last trip, based on where he sat in relation to Kim Jong-un when the delegation observed an exhibition basketball game. The West may have had inklings of all of these tidbits before, but Rodman’s trips have allowed us to confirm these things.
Second, Rodman’s third trip (or fourth trip in January) may have been one of the primary reasons that Kim released 85-year-old American Merrill Newman earlier this month after an unexplained five-week-long detainment of the innocent 1950-53 Korean War veteran-turned-accidental tourist. Newman’s detainment caused the U.S. State Department to issue a heightened travel warning for American citizens planning to visit North Korea. This caused associates of former NBA players to start making inquiries about the safety of going to North Korea in light of Newman’s detention. Had Newman remained in North Korean custody, Rodman might have had a hard time getting former NBA players to join him in Pyongyang in January.
Kim Jong-un may like detaining aged Korean War veterans from the United States, but he certainly does not like that more than hosting some former U.S. Dream Team basketball players on his birthday. No one knows for certain whether there is a causal link here, but does anyone have a better explanation for why Newman was released?
Third, the only certainty about Kim Jong-un is his unpredictability. Rodman’s visits provide another opportunity for Kim to occupy the world stage of media attention to do something else to irk the West. This could be another missile or nuclear provocation after Rodman comes home.
Or it could be an unexpected conciliatory act, like the release of Kenneth Bae. Why is this possible? On the day of Jang Song-thaek’s execution, the North also reached out to the South about cooperation on the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Pyongyang loves to send mixed signals. It thrives on doing the unexpected. The point is that Rodman’s visit provides an opportunity for Kim Jong-un to play tactical games with the West and South Korea. If one of these would be to release Bae at the height of Western animosity and suddenly make Dennis Rodman look like the diplomat that he loathes to be, that would be unfortunate and insulting for American policy makers (and diplomats) who have failed to achieve Bae’s release.
But if Rodman’s peculiar friendship brings this ailing American home, then it would be entirely acceptable to me.
*The author is professor of government at Georgetown University and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
by Victor Cha