Is there anything left to say about Dennis Rodman’s trip to North Korea? Maybe.
Dennis Rodman’s trip to North Korea was clearly a publicity coup for Rodman, for North Korea’s third-generation tyrant Kim Jong Un, and for Vice Media — which cooked up and organized the trip. With Rodman advertising Kim as a his new friend, “honest,” “awesome,” and “a great guy,” it was one more blow for those who believe that what North Korea needs is not more basketball for the Party elite, but the opening of its prison camps, ending of its global crime rackets, scrapping of its missile and nuclear weapons programs and the downfall of the totalitarian Kim regime.
Nor is it wise to simply dismiss Rodman’s comments as obvious idiocy (which they are). Unfortunately, in today’s miasma of celebrity culture, the comments of a Dennis Rodman may reach a lot more people than the testimony of North Korean defectors and the carefully compiled reports of researchers taking great pains to confirm the horrific accounts of North Korea’s gulag, surveillance, political caste system and global rackets.
But could it be worse? Well, yes. It has been.
At least Rodman arrived with none of the gravitas or government backing (real or implied) of the high-level envoys who over the past 19 years have lavished offers, concessions and trust on the North Korean regime. From Jimmy Carter in 1994, to Madeleine Albright in 2000, to the peripatetic diplomacy in 2007-2008 of U.S. nuclear negotiator Chris Hill, North Korea has received a parade of American visitors — and played them for fools. Carter came up with the Agreed Framework nuclear freeze deal, implemented under President Clinton, in which North Korea got free food, fuel and the promise of two nuclear reactors; North Korea took all it could get, before it got caught cheating on the deal. Madeleine Albright, who had a more subdued view than Rodman of basketball as a way to bridge the democratic-totalitarian divide, brought Kim Jong Il a basketball signed by Michael Jordan, hoping the common ground could be expanded to include a North Korean climbdown on missile development; she got nothing for her pains. Chris Hill spent two frenzied years during the second term of the Bush administration avowing that a real nuclear freeze deal was in reach; in that wheeling and dealing North Korea enjoyed the return of allegedly tainted money, got more free food and fuel, got itself removed from the U.S. list of terror-sponsoring states… and cheated and trashed the deal.
Beyond these envoys, North Korea has hosted an additional assortment of visitors more decorous than Dennis Rodman — from the New York Philharmonic in 2008 (shown here performing North Korea’s national anthem, in Pyongyang), to former president Bill Clinton in 2009, and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, accompanied to North Korea this past January by Google chairman Eric Schmidt. The result, over and over, has been to dignify the North Korean regime with the respectful attention of American visitors regarded as persons of substance. What’s come of it? About the best one can say is that Clinton retrieved two employees of Al Gore’s Current TV (that was before Gore sold out to Al Jazeera) who had trespassed into North Korea and ended up effectively held hostage. Basically, the scene is one of unrelenting repression, prison camps, global rackets, missile development and three nuclear tests — the latest of those conducted just last month.
Dennis Rodman’s frolic in Pyongyang did no favors to those who favor peace, freedom, and the dignity of 24 million human souls living under the boot of young dictator Kim. But in the matter of playing right into North Korea’s extortion rackets, unless President Obama takes his advice to pick up the phone to call Kim, Rodman probably did less harm than the roster of former presidents, senior administration officials, special envoys and even classical musicians who went before him.