Self-appointed basketball envoy Dennis Rodman is back in North Korea, bringing with him a group of fellow former NBA stars to entertain North Korea’s young tyrant Kim Jong Un with an exhibition game on Kim’s birthday, this Wednesday. This is Rodman’s fourth visit to North Korea, where, having sampled some of the luxuries of young Kim’s lifestyle, Rodman has pronounced the totalitarian state to be “not that bad” and decided that Kim is his “friend for life.” It’s all part of what Rodman describes as his personal effort to “help the world.”
The real question about Rodman’s visits to North Korea is not why Rodman chooses to go there, but why the U.S. government continues to allow it. Rodman may believe he’s just going to hang with his buddy Kim, and make the world a better place. But it is quite likely that to Kim and his circle of the North Korean elite (at least those he has not yet ordered to be executed), Rodman’s visits look like a gift of tribute from America. There is precedent for this. Recall the basketball signed by former NBA star Michael Jordan, which former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright brought with her to Pyongyang in 2000 as a gift to Kim Jong Un’s late father, Kim Jong Il — also a basketball enthusiast. Albright was hoping to get a deal putting an end to North Korea’s missile habit. She got no deal. But Kim Jong Il did get the signed basketball, which North Korea’s government keeps on prominent display in its Hall of Trophies.
As for Rodman’s place in young Kim Jong Un’s collection of prizes, there is perhaps some insight to be gleaned from a report last year by North Korea’s state mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency. The occasion was Rodman’s first visit to North Korea, in late February, 2013 — a busy month for Kim, whose regime about two weeks earlier had conducted North Korea’s third nuclear test. Rodman arrived in Pyongyang with three Harlem Globetrotters. Mixing it up with North Korean basketball players, as the New York Daily News recounts,he treated Kim to an exhibition game — later praising Kim as an “awesome guy” and Kim’s tyrannical father and grandfather as “great leaders.”
As KCNA described the game, the stadium was packed not only with sports fans, but with “foreign diplomatic envoys, representatives of international bodies, military attaches and other foreign guests here with their families.” With a cast like that — note the specificity, that military attaches were among the honored guests — it wasn’t just the basketball game that was on display to these dignitaries. It was Kim himself, holding court, with the entertainment provided by the visiting Americans. As KCNA told it, both the players and the audience broke into “thunderous applause” — not over the game itself, but because they were “greatly excited to see the game together with Kim Jong Un.” Rodman’s role in this performance included going to “bow to Kim Jong Un” who then in lordly fashion let Rodman sit beside him.