Infuriating the State Department, 52-year-old former Chicago Bulls power forward and five-time NBA champion Dennis Rodman returned to North Korea to stage a dog-and-pony show for the 31st birthday of its eccentric leader Kim Jong-un. Rodman was in North Korea over Christmas staging tryouts for a North Korea v. U.S. basketball game to be auditioned Tuesday on Kim’s birthday. Some of the retired NBA players expressed regrets about joining Rodman’s grandstanding, despite going along to enter the world’s most repressive Stalinist state. “What we are doing is positive, but it is getting dwarfed by other circumstances around it,” said former New York Knicks’ player Charles D. Smith. Kim has given U.S. and EU officials fits over his reckless nuclear bomb testing and threats of war against the U.S. and South Korea. Smith can’t figure out what to make of Rodman’s antics.
Visiting North Korea for the first time Feb. 26, 2013 to host basketball exhibitions, Rodman developed a close relationship with Kim, a big NBA fan, like his late father Kim Jong-il, baffling U.S. authorities, not sure what exactly to do with the flamboyant, pierced-and-tattooed Rodman. “Apparently our message is not being conveyed properly due the circumstances that are much bigger than us, and I think that has to do with politics and government,” said Smith, expressing regrets over his trip. After defying the West and his biggest trading partner China, Kim finds himself in growing isolation, recently condemned for executing his uncle Jang Song-thaek Dec. 23. Reports that he fed him naked to a cage full of hungry dogs turned out to be bogus, underscoring the wild speculation surrounding Kim and North Korea’s walled-off communist state.
When you consider Rodman’s logic of keeping the doors open with a mutual interest in a global sport like basketball isn’t a bad idea, given all the recent threats on the Korean Peninsula recently made by North Korea, South Korea and the U.S.. Arriving in Pyongyang Monday, Jan. 6 with 7 former NBA players, Rodman created the perfect bait for Kim to attend the birthday exhibition. Kim, who rarely meets with any world leaders let alone steps out of North Korea, seems amused by Rodman, a kind of circus freak even in his NBA playing days for the Chicago Bulls along side Michael Jordan. Calling Kim “a friend for life,” Rodman plans to offer the basketball exhibition as a special birthday gift for the young tyrant. Rodman reportedly asked Kim to release American “missionary” Kenneth Bae currently serving an indefinite hard-labor sentence for “anti-state crimes.”
Hoping to appeal to President Barack Obama for their mutual love of basketball, Rodman hopes to gain some recognition, like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who opened up Communist China in 1972. While ambassadors come in different packages, Rodman’s approach to opening up doors does more good than harm, since keeping some door open is better than no door. “The way some of the statements and things that Dennis has said has tainted our efforts,” said Smith, worried about the career fallout once he returns to the states. Even NBA Commissioner David Stern felt inclined to distance himself from Rodman. “The NBA is not involved with Mr. Rodman’s North Korea trip and would not participate or support such a venture without the approval of the U.S. State Department,” said Stern. Rodman’s trip follows the cultural tradition of the Harlem Globetrotters.
Ragging on Rodman doesn’t accomplish anything for the U.S. State Dept. or his conservative critics. Equating Rodman with Edward Snowden, the infamous National Security Agency Leaker or, even more farfetched, actress Jane Fonda who visited Hanoi in July 1972, is absurd. Rodman simply wants to take his circus to the most publicity-starved corner of the globe. Criticizing Rodman for Kim’s human rights abuses is irrelevant. When stage performers go to foreign lands they do so to transcend political squabbles that create more divisions. Asked by CNN whether he would talk to Kim about releasing Bae, Rodman reacted strongly. “I don’t give a rat’s ass what the hell you think . . . One day this door is going to open because of these 10 guys here,” sticking to his apolitical mission of simply bringing some entertainment to celebrate Kim Jong-un’s 31st birthday.
Rodman’s sideshow in Pyongyang plays well with North Korea’s 31-year-old clone of his eccentric father, Kim Jong-il. Gone are the Beluga caviar and Dom Perignon champagne, in are Dennis and his collection of NBA hasbins. “Dennis is a great guy, but how he articulates what goes on—he gets emotional and he says things that he’ll apologize for later,” said Smith, not certain what flack he’ll encounter when he returns to The States. Whether you like him or hate him, Rodham shows a lot of self-promotion, opening the door just a crack into the world’s last Stalinist state. If Rodman’s circus act bears fruit, Obama and the State Department should acknowledge his method to the madness. Going to North Korea to find his new best friend speaks volumes about Rodman. If his antics endear him or the U.S. to North Korea, then the 52-year-old buffoon has done a good thing.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.