Attention, Dennis Rodman: Basketball diplomacy won't change North Korea

The former NBA star is making a third trip to visit Kim Jong Un's tragic kingdom, days after Kim executed his own uncle

On Tuesday, Irish bookmaker Paddy Power said that despite the political turmoil and bloody intrigue in North Korea, former NBA star Dennis Rodman will still visit Pyongyang this week.

"We spoke to a lot of experts who said it's safe for foreigners to travel to North Korea," Paddy Power spokesman Rory Scott tells The New York Times. He elaborated on that point to Reuters: "It's certainly safe, even when there is a bit of disruption like there is now — a bit of trouble or chaos — there's even more need for cultural or sporting exchanges."

That "bit of disruption," trouble, and chaos is a reference to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's abrupt dismissal and swift execution of his uncle Jang Song Thaek and his subordinates — reportedly by a firing squad equipped with machine guns and flamethrowers. (Jang's alleged crimes include corruption, womanizing, drug abuse, and a planned coup. You can read the histrionic list of charges via the state-run news agency.)

This purge of North Korea's second-most-powerful official has deeply unnerved more than just the country's political and military elite. It's one thing to execute your ex-girlfriend; killing your aunt's husband (after reportedly ordering her to divorce him) while publicly exposing (or ginning up) sharp divisions among Pyongyang's ruling class is unusual even for the Kim dynasty. China just lost its highest-ranking ally in North Korea, and the U.S. is now publicly suggesting that Kim really is "dangerous, unpredictable, prone to violence, and with delusions of grandeur," not just acting the part.

The Daily Beast's Kevin Bleyer compares Kim's reign to Game of Thrones. He makes a persuasive case that "winter has come" to the Hermit Kingdom.

So why is Dennis Rodman making his third visit to to North Korea in less than a year? A mixture of lofty ambitions to bring peace to the world and grandiosity, it appears. "I'm going to North Korea to train the basketball team," he tells The Associated Press, referring to his plan to bring several retired (unnamed) NBA stars to Pyongyang in January for a matchup against North Korea's national team — a birthday present for his friend Kim. Rodman adds:

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. If they can. If they can. If they can. I'm going. I'm going back for his birthday. Special. [Rodman, to the AP]

That's madness.

Here's the hopeful, best case: Rodman will be able to de-escalate tensions by playing off of Kim's fondness for American pro basketball — especially Rodman's Michael Jordan–era Chicago Bulls — which the youthful dictator developed while in boarding school in Switzerland. And Western intelligence legitimately seems to have little knowledge about what's going on in the frustratingly obscure nation, so any information Rodman can bring back might fill in some gaps, too.

"More than a few U.S. diplomats and North Asia experts would love to plant a few questions in Rodman's ear on the chance he might casually run them by Kim, should the two again share courtside seats," says Howard LaFranchi at The Christian Science Monitor.

For example: Why did the regime release American Korean War veteran Merrill Newman earlier this month after detaining him in October as he was about to leave the country after an organized trip? Yet, why do the North Koreans hold on to American Kenneth Bae, who was sentenced in May to 15 years in prison?... Another casual query between high-fives over slam-dunks might be why activity has recently accelerated around the North's nuclear materials complex at Yongbyon — including its plutonium production reactor? And, an even more intriguing question Rodman might ask Kim that experts would love to hear the answer to: Why did you do away with Uncle Jang? [Christian Science Monitor]

Rodman won't ask any of those questions, and he wouldn't get a good answer even if he did. North Korea doesn't listen to anybody but China, and Bloomberg View columnist William Pesek argues that even China blew its chance to gain influence with Kim Jong Un. If Pyongyang's biggest trading partner, financial lifeline, and only real global ally can't rein in Kim, what's Dennis Rodman going to do?

Rodman "can't lift sanctions — he doesn't have that power or authority," International Crisis Group North Korea analyst Daniel Pinkston told The Guardian in September, when the current trip was announced. But this isn't a "propaganda coup" for North Korea, Pinkston adds, arguing that in fact "the risks and costs are very, very low" and there's even a very small chance it will create "a channel for the exchange of ideas."

Not likely. Kim is almost certainly welcoming Rodman for some mixture of propaganda value and celebrity cachet. And the fact that Kim thinks Rodman might help boost his fortunes is worrisome in itself, Korea expert B.R. Myers tells The New Republic. The brutal purge of Uncle Jang isn't that shocking, Myers adds, but "for the past two years I've been marveling at how bad the propaganda has been."

I would call it ill-advised if I thought anyone was stupid enough to advise it. From the first few months of the national mourning period, when Kim Jong Un was laughing it up on the evening news, to his allowing an American basketball player to slouch next to him in cap and sunglasses, it's been one odd move after another.... His father cut his teeth in propaganda work, he had a brilliant grasp of it. He took his wife around with him too, but he had the sense not to put her on the evening news. This young man seems to have lived overseas too briefly to learn anything, but long enough to lose touch with his own country, with the myths that keep him in power. [The New Republic]

A basketball game pitting young, Rodman-trained North Koreans against aging American pros might be thrilling for Kim, but the only thing that might excite the country's impoverished masses is if the North Koreans win. And that would probably mean the Americans are either the NBA's B- or C-team, or they throw the game. Rodman is treading on thin ice. It wouldn't be the first time.

"Let's hope the new 'Dear Leader' hasn't seen that pistachio commercial, in which Rodman mocks the young and unpredictable Kim," says The Daily Beast's Bleyer. "Or at least, let's hope he laughs."


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