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.
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.