You get the idea. For North Korea, the game here is not just basketball. It’s a game of trophies — American trophies. Kim conducts a nuclear test, presides over a prison state and executes anyone he deems disloyal (including his own uncle) — and then unwinds by inviting an American sports star (however eccentric) to come bow to him, perform for Pyongyang and the world headlines, and sample the pleasures of Kim’s lifestyle. Such are the luxuries of totalitarian rule.
If there a fitting retort to this display? As it happens, luxuries of various kinds are on the list of goods that United Nations Security Council sanctions forbid exporting to North Korea. The UN lists a number of specific items that all member states are supposed to withhold, including gems, jewelry with pearls, yachts, luxury automobiles and racing cars. But individual member states are free to expand on that list of designated luxuries, adding whatever fancy items — coveted by the Kim regime — they see fit. That’s why the Swiss government refused to sell ski lift equipment to North Korea.
The U.S. government already sanctions the sale of luxury goods, among other things, to North Korea. Surely the provision of basketball exhibition games is a luxury, apparently rewarded by Pyongyang with lavish hospitality, if not with cash on the barrel. To forbid the provision of such luxuries to North Korea need not entail singling out any individual — no one need bother with Dennis Rodman in particular. But is there by now a case to be made that for any American to provide Kim Jong Un with performances he covets — say, a headline-grabbing American all-star-populated basketball game for his birthday — is at least as pernicious as selling him ski lifts, and jewelry and yachts? Enforcing sanctions on most luxury goods is not easy. It appears that Kim has managed despite sanctions to procure ski equipment and fancy boats. But with exhibition sports games, it’s hard for the players to hide. There just might be a better chance of depriving Kim of his trophies. It would certainly be a better way of sending him birthday greetings from America.