The former NBA star Dennis Rodman is not engaging in “sports diplomacy” by going to North Korea and hanging out, or not, with the dictator Kim Jong Un. All he’s doing is creating publicity for Dennis Rodman.
No one is stopping Rodman from going, not even — apparently — the U.S. State Department, as Rodman apparently proceeds with a plan to play a basketball exhibition Jan. 8 in North Korea. It purportedly features ex-NBA players against the North Korean men’s national basketball team, its erstwhile Olympic team. Jan. 8, it should be noted, will be Kim's 31st birthday. How special.
This ought to be clear: Kim is using Rodman in a bid to deflect attention from the brutal reality of life in North Korea. Rodman, meanwhile, is using Kim to generate attention for the Dennis Rodman brand. As he said in a cover story in Sports Illustrated in July, “I haven’t had a job in years, yet I’m talked about more than ever.”
It can be funny to dye your hair or get a bunch of piercings or show up in public in a wedding dress or show up at the Wife-Carrying World Championships in Finland. It can be cool, maybe, to hang out with Carmen Electra or Madonna.
North Korea is isolated, its people impoverished.
An estimated 1 in every 120 people there is imprisoned in gulags.
On his birthday last year, Kim reportedly handed out copies of "Mein Kampf" as gifts -- allegedly to promote a study of Hitler's economic reforms.
The United States and South Korea have consistently registered serious concerns about North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs as well as its chemical weapons capabilities.
Rodman made his first visit to the North Korea in late February, accompanied by three members of the Harlem Globetrotters. Weeks before, North Korea had conducted a nuclear test, its third in seven years.
Some 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea. Query: did Rodman visit them? Why not?
Kim, educated in Switzerland, reportedly grew up a basketball fan, especially of the Chicago Bulls, for whom Rodman played during their championship run along Michael Jordan in the 1990s. During that February visit, Rodman called Kim a “friend” and said, “I love him — the guy’s awesome.”
That trip was sponsored by Brooklyn-based Vice Media, filming along the way for a documentary. In September, he went back to Pyongyang, underwritten by Paddy Power, the Ireland-based online gambling concern. After that first North Korea trip, Paddy Power sent Rodman to Vatican City in March, where he pushed a black cardinal from Africa as his preferred candidate for the next pope, a company spokesman saying Rodman was there to “spread the gospel of pope betting.”
One of Rodman’s many problems now is that he has been all over the map — so to speak — when it comes to whether going to North Korea is, in fact, all about him or changing the world by effecting peace through sports.
In July, to Sports Illustrated:
"My mission is to break the ice between hostile countries. Why it's been left to me to smooth things over, I don't know. Dennis Rodman, of all people. Keeping us safe is really not my job; it's the black guy's [Obama's] job. But I'll tell you this: If I don't finish in the top three for the next Nobel Peace Prize, something's seriously wrong."
In November, to Associated Press:
"Just think, it's up to Dennis Rodman to break ground with North Korea. I’m the only one in the world who will go talk to this guy and try and find some common ground with these people. I'm hoping that gap between America and North Korea can close. Those guys love a lot about America. They love it. That's why I go over there.
"People don't believe that."
In December, to Reuters, in Beijing, en route to Pyongyang, after the execution of Kim’s uncle and mentor, Jang Song Thaek, who had been considered the regime's second-most powerful man, in response to an open letter in the Washington Post about human-rights abuses in North Korea:
"People have been saying these things here and there. It doesn't really matter to me. I'm not a politician. I'm not an ambassador.
"I'm just going over there to try and do something really cool for a lot of people, play some games and try to get the Korean kids to play.
"Everything else I have nothing to do with. If it happens that [Kim] wants to talk about it, then great. If it doesn't happen, I just can't bring it up because I don't (want) him to think that I'm over here trying to be an ambassador and trying to use him as being his friend and all of a sudden I'm talking about politics. That's not going to be that way.”
One might have thought Rodman would have had more common sense after Jang’s Dec. 12 execution. But no. He went to North Korea, anyway.
This last time, there was no meeting with Kim.
When Rodman got back, Paddy Power abruptly announced it had had enough — it was backing out of the Jan. 8 game. In an email, it cited “changed circumstances.”
The reality is that true sports diplomacy takes time. It takes resource. Almost always, it happens out of the spotlight.
The International Olympic Committee knows this. This is why, among other initiatives, it developed Olympic Solidarity, overseen now by Kuwait’s Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah. Solidarity seeks to identify promising young athletes around the world and get them to the Games.
The State Department knows this, too. Its International Sports Programming Initiative is even now seeking grant proposals — the deadline is Feb. 28 — for one- to three-year projects around the world.
These one-one-one endeavors are hugely more likely to effect change and produce good than Rodman in North Korea.
The conundrum is that he is likely to get more press.
The challenge is that even writing about it — and him — gives him what he wants.
But unless this gets written, this, too, can’t be relayed:
None of the ex-NBA players due to take part in the Jan. 8 project have been identified.
Now is the time for any of those players to themselves develop a strong dose of common sense. And for the league, and the commissioner, to strongly advise any and all of those players: stay home.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the influential Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. In a recent open letter, he put it perfectly:
“… Please: forget Rodman. Don’t give Kim Jong Un an easy PR layup he doesn’t deserve. Instead, join decent people everywhere and become a part of the growing global zone defense trying to help the defenseless people of North Korea.”