The odd relationship between Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong Un explained

Former basketball star will be in Singapore for North Korean leader’ meeting with Donald Trump

Kim Jong Un Dennis Rodman
Kim Jong Un with Dennis Rodman during one of the retired NBA player’s previous visits
(Image credit: AFP/Getty)

Dennis Rodman has revealed he is planning to be in Singapore during the summit meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un next week.

“A lot of times in situations that involve complex diplomacy, countries like to identify ambassadors of goodwill, and whether you agree with it or not, Dennis Rodman fits the bill,” a source close to the former basketball player told The New York Post.

Sources say Rodman “could even play some sort of role in the negotiations”, the newspaper adds.

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Rodman has made at least five trips to visit Kim in recent years, and is also close to Trump after appearing alongside the then-future president on TV reality show Celebrity Apprentice.

Last August, Rodman said the exchange of fiery rhetoric of nuclear brinkmanship between Trump and Kim was “more like two big kids deciding who’s the toughest”.

“It says a lot about the world that the only man on good terms with both Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un is a former basketball player,” says The Guardian’s Hunter Felt.

But Rodman “seems to have a completely different conception of [North Korea] than pretty much all other Americans”, a tourist who met during a visit to North Korea told BuzzFeed.

So how did Rodman’s unlikely friendship with the North Korean dictator start and what role might the US sport star play in Singapore?

How did Rodman and Kim’s friendship begin?

Rodman first visited North Korea in 2013, along with a group of journalists, after being invited there by Kim. The North Korean leader grew up following Rodman’s team, the Chicago Bulls, in the 1990s, so when Vice Media led what was dubbed a “basketball diplomacy” mission five years ago, “a fruitful correspondence was almost inevitable”, says the BBC’s Michael Madden.

Rodman touched down in North Korea with the Harlem Globetrotters, who then played a North Korean selection while Rodman and the North Korean leader watched from a gallery.

The first trip was particularly notable as “one of the only times where you saw large numbers of members of the North Korean elite in their 20s and 30s”, says Madden. It was a rare and sure sign that a new generation of North Korea’s leadership was present and alert.

Their presence at the Globetrotters game was about “associating the younger elites with this most modern of Korean preferences”, he adds.

Since then Rodman has returned to North Korea to take part in further so-called basketball diplomacy, often bringing the dictator gifts or memorabilia.

What do they talk about?

Appearing on US chat show The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Rodman insisted trust was the secret behind his relationship with Kim.

Rodman said: “Well, for some reason, he likes me. I’m being honest, he likes me. I think the fact that people don’t really understand the fact if you actually go over there and meet him - obviously, you don’t see him talk on TV - but for some reason, he trusts me. And when I went over there, the first thing he said to me, he said, ‘Mr Rodman, we just want to know, can we trust you?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’”

Rodman told Colbert that he and the national leader don’t talk about politics.

Instead, Rodman said, he hopes to merely open the door for political discourse, with Kim telling him that North Korea doesn’t want war.

“I’m close enough to him to the fact that he can discuss anything with me. But the deal is I don’t discuss politics, because that’s not my job. My job is to be a human being, to try and connect us with him,” said Rodman.

Will Rodman play a part in the US-North Korea summit?

If the sides come to an agreement about a kind of cultural exchange, Rodman “could be a key part of that somehow”, says Madden.

More importantly, “if he does turn up you shouldn’t be surprised, because both Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un operate by trusting personal relationships”, Madden adds.

But any hopes of a thawing of relations thanks to Rodman may prove misguided. A source with inside knowledge of Rodman’s previous trips told Time magazine that they were principally “one long party of boozing”.

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