Feature

North Korea: Rodman’s basketball diplomacy

It was “one of the strangest sights in the history of accidental American diplomacy.”

It was “one of the strangest sights in the history of accidental American diplomacy,” said Lynn Zinser in The New York Times. Dennis Rodman, pierced provocateur and retired NBA rebounding champion, was last week pictured chatting and laughing with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un at a basketball exhibition in Pyongyang. The former Chicago Bull visited the “Hermit Kingdom” with three Harlem Globetrotters as part of an upcoming cable TV special, and apparently had a “blast” with the totalitarian dictator. Kim—who recently threatened to nuke the U.S.—is a “great guy,” Rodman said later, reporting that the dictator told him, “I don’t want to go to war.” Kim even asked Rodman to get President Obama to call him directly. Kim “loves basketball,” said Rodman. “I said, ‘Obama loves basketball.’ Let’s start there.”

Call me crazy, said Jim Camp in Forbes.com, but this “basketball diplomacy” could work. Yes, Rodman is a “shameless clown,” both “on and off the court”—a guy who has died his hair orange and blue, often babbles incoherently in public, and once dated Madonna and Carmen Electra. But unlikely diplomat though he is, he remains the only American to have actually met North Korea’s young new leader. As one former State Department official said, “There is nobody at the CIA who could tell you more personally about Kim than Dennis Rodman.” He has presented Obama with a “gold mine of an opportunity,” which the president should use to send Kim a game-changing message: Lay off the nuclear weapons, and we’ll help you develop North Korea’s economy. “Mr. President, this could be a slam dunk. Make the call.”

We all like a good joke, said John Avlon in CNN .com, but while Dennis Rodman is funny, North Korea is not. Since 1995, an estimated 3.5 million North Koreans have starved to death, and an estimated 200,000 people are currently held in Kim’s gulags. By “bonding over a shared love of basketball and getting drunk with the dictator’s entourage,” Rodman has taken a “cheap holiday in other people’s misery.” The fact that Americans laughed anyway points to a “larger, more troubling phenomenon,” said Ian Crouch in NewYorker.com. People think there is something amusing about North Korea, with its 1950s technology, its “ham-fisted public pageantry,” and its  cartoonishly evil line of dictators. Let’s not forget that 25 million North Koreans aren’t laughing.

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