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20 March 2018 05:57 (South Africa)

Dennis Rodman visits North Korea, proves Young Leader can jump

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World
BROOKS dennis rodman in NOKO.jpg

No one could have been expected to care that basketball hall-of-famer “The Worm” didn’t know the difference between North and South – until he became the first American to spend time with the “Young Leader” who has promised to transform the United States in a sea of flame, whose nation has just conducted its third nuclear test, and which recently launched a missile test masquerading as a satellite. It’s no wonder that the media, the CIA and the State Department are all going ballistic, writes J BROOKS SPECTOR.

It would be worth a great deal to be a fly on the wall when some serious, sombre, senior suits from the US State Department eventually get around to carrying out a debriefing with Dennis Rodman about his recent trip to North Korea and his fun time with Kim Jong-un. Rodman, of course, is that sometime cross-dressing, much-tattooed and pierced basketball hall of fame star forward from championship teams in Detroit and Chicago (the latter with Michael Jordan and Scotty Pippen, among others), and who dated Madonna and had that brief, ephemeral marriage to sometime-actress and model Carmen Electra.

And now, adding to his string of accomplishments, Rodman has become the only American – ever – to have spent quality time with North Korea’s “Young Leader”. Really. Dennis Rodman has had extensive face time with the same man who only recently promised to transform the United States in a sea of flame; whose nation had just conducted its third nuclear test; and which had recently launched a satellite as a masquerade for a ballistic missile test. As a result of all this and more, Kim’s North Korea has generally been on the sharp end of the stick of United Nations opprobrium for its behaviour towards the rest of the international community.

There is actually still a UN Command based in South Korea that ostensibly is responsible for policing the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two halves of the peninsula (although virtually all the troops are now South Korean or American now). The DMZ had been established as part of the ceasefire that ended the brutal Korean War that had virtually destroyed South Korea’s capital of Seoul, along with much of the infrastructure of the entire peninsula.

The war eventually included Soviet fighter jets and pilots and a major Chinese army on the side of the North, and a coalition of forces from some 38 nations (including South Africa) on the side of South Korea to fight off a total takeover by Kim Il-Sung’s North Korean army. The entire peninsula had earlier been part of the Japanese Empire from 1910 to 1945. After Japan’s defeat, Korea was divided into two halves for temporary occupation by the US and Soviet Union at the end of World War II.

Kim Jong-un is the third generation of the family that has now ruled North Korea since the end of World War II. His grandfather, Kim Il-Sung founded this hereditary communist dictatorship and his cinema-loving father, Kim Jong-Il, preceded the “Young Leader” into power over a country that has suffered from recurrent famines made much worse by government action – and inaction – as well as endemic food shortages except for the politically reliable and powerful.

Since the youngest Kim has taken over, there have been moments when the rest of the world wondered if he was verging on opening up the country to more normal foreign relations, as with his invitation to the diplomatic corps to visit the Rungna People’s Pleasure Ground, a Disneyland-like theme park in Pyongyang – where the British ambassador had been famously photographed riding a roller coaster together with the “Young Leader”. The British foreign office reportedly later explained that any engagement – even a ride on a roller coaster was “vital”.

When Barack Obama secretly sent envoys last year with a warning against new nuclear and rocket tests, but also an offer of a thaw in relations, they ended up meeting only mid-tier functionaries. Even Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor who has visited the North eight times, was unable to score a “meet and greet” with Kim Jong-un when he visited Pyongyang with Google’s Eric Schmidt, whose Silicon Valley star power was supposed to prove irresistible to the young leader.

Usually, in previous cycles of diplomacy, North Korea-style, after a slight opening gambit, the curtain has usually been rolled back. Then there is once again a gigantic military parade or one of those patented mass placard displays in a stadium flashing changing pictures or cheery exhortations to destroy America.

Anyway, VICE, that “out on the fringe”, socially advanced video and multi-media company, was eager to do a made-for-cable doccie on everyday life in North Korea. VICE teamed up with the now-retired Dennis Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters – and, no, we are not making this up. That made Rodman the point person on this privately funded and organised sports exchange.

There was clearly some cunning in all this on both sides. Kim Jong-un is popularly known to be basketball-mad. As this visit progressed, there has also apparently been some video footage about showing the Young Leader’s new wife – apparently a dancer/acrobat before rising to the very top of Pyongyang society – spinning a basketball on her outstretched index finger during this visit.

When former secretary of state Madeline Albright had earlier visited Pyongyang, she brought an autographed round-ball – autographed with Michael Jordan’s “John Hancock” – as a way to soften up the young Kim’s heart towards America just a bit. If the backstory is true, Kim the younger fell in love with b-ball when he attended his Swiss boarding school. (A question for journalists to ponder: Do the foreign students really spend lots of time in their Swiss boarding schools contemplating the majesty of American professional basketball, picking round-ball stars to moon over?)

Anyway, Rodman dutifully got on board the bus, so to speak, and headed off to Pyongyang with the VICE video-crew to document the Harlem Globetrotters’ game against North Korea’s finest basketball players. That game ended diplomatically – and amazingly – in a 115-115 tie. Now the Harlem Globetrotters have been a travelling exhibition team for donkey’s years, usually playing the terminally hapless Atlantic City Seagulls, a team whom they tower over by an easy 20cm a player or so at every position – something that must have been at least as true in their game against the Pyongyang Nuclear Pistols – or whatever they are called. The Globetrotters have traditionally recruited super players who are renowned for shooting skill, as well as theatricality in with such moves as a long-distance Alley-Oop shot, trick passes and wonderful dribbling exhibitions, before inevitably running away with each game to the inevitable sound of their theme song, Sweet Georgia Brown.

Dennis Rodman himself seems to have been more than a little confused as to where he was going when he told reporters he was looking forward to visiting the home turf of Psy, the creator of Gangnam style, that viral YouTube sensation that originated from Korea. Sadly for Rodman, Psy is from the South. Regardless, Rodman eventually really did have some very real face time with Kim – both at an elaborate formal banquet where some of the VICE team told the world that they had got “wasted” on the potent Korean brandy, and at courtside where Rodman sat with Kim for the aforementioned exhibition game.

It is not entirely clear how much of substance was exchanged, in part because it is unknown how much English Kim actually understands, and it is almost a drop-dead certainty Rodman doesn’t speak much – if any – Korean. Regardless, even the small talk, casual remarks, the body language, Kim’s overheard comments by those in the party who do speak Korean, will all be of great interest to the rest of the world – not least to the folks in Foggy Bottom (John Kerry’s new office space), Langley (where the CIA hangs its hat), and in the White House. This is because there are guaranteed to be many more contretemps with North Korea over its nuclear programme, its missiles, its threats, and its pleas for food assistance – as it tries to manage manoeuvre space in its neighbourhood between Russia, China, the US, South Korea and Japan.

A retired American diplomat with decades of experience with Korean issues and on the peninsula commented: “As clueless as Rodman might be, however, Pyongyang’s motivation and reasons for inviting him are more calculating and clever.

“First, despite the fact the regime in Pyongyang is no different in fact and substance with a new leader, Kim Jong-un has gone to great pains to show a less reclusive, more open face personally. He has appeared often with his fashionably decked out wife, loosened some of the dress restrictions, opened a Disney-world-imitation theme park and hobnobbed with the small diplomatic community resident in Pyongyang. All of this has been optics, as the border with China has been tightened, the flow of defectors slowed and, of course, the belligerence, nuclear tests and all, has, if anything, been ratcheted up a bit to the consternation of everybody, including China.”

This observer continued, “It is time for the North to show its ‘human side’ again to try and convince everybody that they are a normal country. Kim Jong-un has been fascinated by basketball since he was a student in Switzerland in the 1990s… Kim Jong-un was still sufficiently star-struck that he spent a lot of time with one of the stars from his childhood. I suspect that his fawning over Rodman is what led to Rodman’s comment that ‘he is an awesome kid’.  If any other American, or Korean for that matter, had referred to the god-like Kim Jong-un as a ‘kid’ there would have been howls of protest, but Rodman could get away with it and not realise how dangerous as well as nutty saying that might have been. Looking at the pictures of Kim next to Rodman watching a basketball game reveals more emotion and excitement on Kim’s face than one usually sees.”

And he concludes that: “Rodman’s visit, from the NK point of view satisfies the dual purpose of quenching Kim’s passion for basketball and the chance to meet one of the game’s big names and to advance the North’s ‘charm offensive’ in the wake of the latest nuclear test. A bonus is that, while Rodman is a big name who brought some international publicity, there was be no danger of Rodman badgering North Korea about human rights, openness, nuclear issues, or its general belligerence.”

That said, it is still little short of amazing how the US State Department’s spokesman managed to twist himself into a litany of verbal knots as he tried to explain why this sports exchange was totally unimportant and of no interest to the US government, even as it was neither helpful nor unhelpful for the country. It is therefore worth quoting at some length from the exchanges between Patrick Ventrell, the State Department’s acting deputy spokesman, and a gaggle of diplomatic correspondents over the Rodman visit. 

QUESTION: I know what you said the other day, that you didn’t have a position. But now he was seen at a basketball game with – sitting next to Kim Jung-Il and said to the public – that he has a friend for life. And I’m wondering if you think this type of a US celebrity, a kind of – albeit a D-list one, but, pumping up the leader of North Korea is helpful.

VENTRELL: Elise, we talked about this the other day. Really, we just take no position on this private –

QUESTION: But you didn’t take a position because more – you said that it was more about this – it was for kids, this was about helping kids enjoy basketball. He was the one – I mean, it’s more than that now. It’s – now it’s – he’s cosying up with the leader.

VENTRELL: I mean, look. I really refer you to – we don’t have any details on all aspects of his trip. We weren’t in touch with him before on who all they were going to meet with. It’s not something we’ve taken a position on. We have not been in touch with them at all throughout this process.

QUESTION: But do you in general appreciate Americans being part of propaganda ploys for the North Korean regime?

VENTRELL: Private individual Americans are welcome to take actions they see fit.

QUESTION: And you have no qualms whatsoever about being put up as a kind of poster for North Korean propaganda?


QUESTION: Because on Tuesday what you said was we’re talking about basketball and kids play; it’s different than some sort of dialogue directly with the regime. And now Dennis Rodman is the first American citizen to meet with Kim Jong-un. So clearly he’s having a dialogue with the regime, no? You still have no position?

VENTRELL: Honestly, I’m not sure exactly what the extent of his meetings were or weren’t. Did they meet on the sideline of a basketball game? Did they shake hands? I’m not sure because –

VENTRELL: If there are Americans who after traveling in North Korea want to get in touch with us or have something to share with us, we take the phone calls.

QUESTION: This is a country that just detonated a nuclear bomb, and the amount of effort you’re showing is incredibly lax. I mean, you’re saying that somebody who’s been – who’s spoken to the leader of this country, you’ll make no effort whatsoever to reach him, but if he wants to come and talk to you, then maybe you’ll pick up the phone call. Is that the level –

VENTRELL: A couple things here, Brad. First of all, we’re not a clearinghouse for American citizen travel to North Korea. There are some Americans who go there. We as a State Department provide our country-specific travel information. That’s the role we take.

When it comes to the situation in terms of the North Korean nuclear programme, the North Korean ballistic missile programme, we absolutely do take and do have a very strong stand, and we’re working with our counterparts in the UN on a strong resolution in response. And so we absolutely are concerned about the situation and take it very seriously. One individual’s travel is just something we’re not going to take a position on.

QUESTION: Do you think it’s helpful to the human rights issues? I mean, VICE has put out a whole press statement saying that they’ve had dinner with the supreme leader, that he’s a friend for life at the –

VENTRELL: Our concern is that the regime spends money on this kind of entertainment and not on feeding its own people. So to that extent, if it’s a human rights issue, yes, we want the regime to feed its own people, to take care of them, absolutely.

QUESTION: If Bill Richardson [former US Ambassador the UN who had recently travelled to North Korea together with Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google] had declared himself a friend for life with Kim Jong-un, would you – would the reaction be different?

VENTRELL: Look, I wouldn’t speculate on what –

QUESTION: Do you think you’ll have a response when the documentary airs in April?

VENTRELL: Again, I’m not going to speculate. We just haven’t had contact with him. We don’t know exactly the details of the trip.

QUESTION: Do you think that Kim Jong’s appreciation to American culture, like basketball or Disney; have any sort of impact on US-DPRK relations?

VENTRELL: I don’t think we’d try to get inside of his head, other than to say that –

QUESTION: Nor will you try.

VENTRELL: When was the last time anyone in this building had spoken to anyone who had spoken to Kim Jong?

QUESTION: Yeah. Because since – considering you’re not even trying to find out what they might have talked about, what he could learn, what he saw, what he heard, you must have an incredible wealth of knowledge on Kim Jong-un.

VENTRELL: Look, you know where we are right now in terms of the provocative action, and that’s why we’re working with our international partners. We have had –

QUESTION: Provocative action meaning a nuclear test?

VENTRELL: The nuclear test and the ballistic missile programme. We have had a channel of communication with the regime, but the point here is right now what we’re doing is we’re working with our partners to have a credible response. This is – that’s the stage we’re at in our relationship with North Korea.

QUESTION: So you haven’t in a while? Is that the point?

VENTRELL: I’m not going to characterise it one way or the other.

QUESTION: Would you say this trip to North Korea – Dennis Rodman’s trip to North Korea is a good way to influence North Korea by your soft power, which the government always talking about?

VENTRELL: Look. This was an – absolutely a private trip by a private individual. We have done various forms of diplomacy to connect the people of different – of countries with whom we don’t have a good relationship. We have no ill will toward the people of North Korea, just as we have no ill will toward the people of Iran. And so we have had, over time, diplomacy that we’ve done to, quite frankly, connect people in some of these countries. But this was a private – this was something that was a private –

QUESTION: Last trip.

QUESTION: Just one last thing for clarification.

VENTRELL: Last one on this one, guys.

QUESTION: Do you still believe that Eric Schmidt’s trip was unhelpful in light of Dennis Rodman’s not being unhelpful?

VENTRELL: I mean, we characterised it at the time and –

QUESTION: Do you stick by that, or do you take that back?

VENTRELL: Look. Here we had a prominent former official and the head of a major American company, a former Cabinet member, going off specifically to have dialogue with the regime. It’s just comparing apples and oranges…

It never really got much better than that for poor Mr Ventrell. But one thing is certain, given the paucity of information on North Korea and its leadership within the American government, there are almost certainly going to be some quiet but very insistent phone calls to Dennis Rodman and his people – and to each of the team members of VICE and the Globetrotters – to find out exactly what they saw, heard, learned, felt, thought, smelled or tasted while they were in The Hermit Kingdom, the northern edition.

Outside experts were sharply divided on the question. Marcus Noland, a leading expert on North Korea’s economy and political system at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, supported the trip, saying, “I am all for it. No one has anything to lose on this one, so why not? If Kim Jong-un is half the 1990s NBA fan he is cracked up to be, Dennis Rodman could have more impact on US-DPRK relations than say John Kerry. And look better in a dress.”

By contrast, Victor Cha, chief Korea specialist for the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Bush advisor on Northeast Asia, countered, “The image that comes to mind is a guy who’s playing with matches. He’s sitting atop a renegade nuclear weapons state, and the thing that drives him is not the entreaties by China or the United States, it’s meeting Dennis Rodman. Maybe we should have given Rodman the denuclearisation brief.”

For a country where most of the best information about Kim’s homeland available to official Americans still comes from refugees who flee North Korea into China and who then make their way to South Korea and detailed debriefings with the quiet folks with questionnaires; anybody who sat for a couple of hours at courtside with the Young Leader is bound to have interesting things to say about what happened on that trip. DM

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Photo: North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and former NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman talk in Pyongyang in this undated picture released by North Korea's KCNA news agency on March 1, 2013. KCNA reported that a mixed basketball game of visiting U.S. basketball players and North Korean players was held at Ryugyong Jong Ju Yong Gymnasium in Pyongyang on February 28, 2013. REUTERS/KCNA

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World

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