Dennis Does DPRK: Basketball Diplomacy with Dennis Rodman in North Korea

As a NBA hoops junky from way back I have some fond and vivid memories of Dennis Rodman, NBA Hall of Famer and possible closet extra-terrestrial being.  My favourite moments include…

  • Rodman the Detroit Piston as one of the chief practitioners of the “Jordan Rules,” a brand of defence designed to quell Michael Jordan’s scoring prowess through physical battery bordering on thuggery.
  • Rodman the San Antonio Spur, the green-haired rebounding machine and odd side-kick to the squeaky-clean David Robinson, former Navy graduate and Spurs star centre.
  • Rodman the Chicago Bull, who with regularly changing chameleon-like hair managed to successfully psychologically bait opponents like Shawn Kemp, Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone in big playoff games.
  • Then there was Rodman the on-court malcontent, engaged in never-ending hostile liaison with referees, his “good karma” with referee Steve Javie being a case in point.
  • Who could forget Rodman the cross-dresser and his sham wedding with Baywatch babe Carmen Electra, which he attended in a full-length wedding dress.
  • Or Rodman the alcoholic, the man who chartered jets to Las Vegas between games during the 1998 NBA Finals series.

So it was with amusement that I greeted the news that Dennis Rodman was travelling on a goodwill trip to North Korea.  At a time of tense US-DPRK relations, Rodman roaming as an ambassador-at-large in Pyongyang sounds as prudent as selecting Jar Jar Binks as a diplomatic representative to the imperial senate on Coruscant.

Basketball Diplomacy

Of course Rodman is in North Korea officially as an ambassador for basketball and unofficially as the star in a HBO television documentary, not as an endorsed agent of the United States government.   His retinue includes members of the Harlem Globetrotters exhibition team.

The trip is the brainchild of Shane Smith, documentary film maker and producer of the HBO television program “Vice”.  Smith hatched the idea for the trip on the basis of the late Kim Jong Il’s fascination for NBA basketball.  The Dear Leader was famously presented with a basketball signed by Michael Jordan as a gift from US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000.  It appears that Kim Jong Un shares his father’s love of dunks, three-pointers and blocked shots performed by athletic Americans.

Rodman and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sat together watching a game between the visiting Globetrotters and an all-star line-up of local players.  The game finished tied at 110-110, the decision not to settle it in overtime possibly a mutual face-saving effort; the North Koreans couldn’t be seen to lose to an American team, while the Globetrotters haven’t lost a game in sixty years.  The hoops delegation reportedly went back to a post-game party at Kim Jong Un’s palace, after which Rodman proclaimed Kim Jong Un as a “friend for life.”

Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman enjoying the game.
Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman enjoying the game (courtesy

According to KCNA, the visiting hoops delegation also conducted a training session with local players…

Pyongyang, February 27 (KCNA) — Basketball players of the DPRK and the U.S. conducted a joint training in Ryugyong Jong Ju Yong Gymnasium here on Wednesday.  Participating in it were U-18 players of the DPRK and ex-player of the NBA of the U.S. Dennis Rodman and his party.  Match tactics, training mode and technique movement of the players of the two countries were exchanged at the joint training.  A workshop on basketball technique took place that day.

Basketball, like soccer, has become a universal language understood and loved by people from countries around the world.  The current cultural diversity of the NBA is a testament to that.  In my own travels through East Asia, my love of basketball has been a bonding agent, an entry vehicle that has helped me to forge many friendships.

Basketball diplomacy: Yours truly with my team mates from the Two-Three basketball team at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.
Basketball diplomacy: Yours truly with my team mates from the Two-Three basketball team at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.

A press release on the trip released by the Harlem Globetrotters speaks to the common affinity for basketball as a vehicle for cross-cultural understanding

The Harlem Globetrotters are known worldwide as the Ambassadors of Goodwill, and we are proud to continue our storied heritage of entertaining families and breaking down social barriers worldwide…Our aim is to entertain and inspire children everywhere. Every child deserves that opportunity.

Rodman’s tweets from North Korea similarly speak the language of goodwill…

I come in peace. I love the people of North Korea!

 They love basketball here. Honoured to represent The United States of America.

 I’m not a politician. Kim Jung Un & North Korean people are basketball fans. I love everyone. Period. End of story.

Maybe Bill Schmidt and Eric Richardson should roll with an NBA squad next time they visit Pyongyang?

Basketball as Soft Power

The American image around the world has taken a hit over the past decade, but we should not forget that the attraction of American cultural products was a key to the success of Pax Americana in the late-20th century.  The key to US success since 1945 has been its ability to co-opt other states into its hegemonic framework through attraction and persuasion—soft power as Joseph Nye has framed it—rather than by force of arms alone.  NBA basketball ranks up there with popular music and Hollywood as an American cultural export that is attractive to people around the world (people like me).

So could we categorise Dennis Rodman’s North Korean basketball tour as a mission promoting American soft power?  It is obvious that the hyper-materialism and commercialisation of professional basketball, along with the individualism embodied by NBA players (none more so than Dennis Rodman) stand in stark contrast with the austere lifestyles and communitarian dynamic of North Korean society.  Could that enigmatic fluorescent-haired, cross-dressing rebounding machine know affectionately as “The Worm” become a successful ambassador for American soft power and expose the contradictions of North Korean society under the Kim dynasty?

This is unlikely.  Foreign visitors to North Korea are kept on a tight leash, chaperoned at all times by government minders and kept to a strict itinerary of approved sights.  As a visitor you see what the government wants you to see.  The minders and tour guides that accompany foreigners are specially trained and selected for their roles, a “bunch of hardened cadres, guides and spies” as Dongseo University academic Brian Myers has put it.  They are not just gatekeepers; the guides are also thought to collect intelligence on and from visiting foreign nationals.

In this case, the interactions Rodman and co. would have been restricted to a select group of loyal citizens and they almost certainly would not have been let anywhere near ordinary North Koreans.  While the North Korean basketball team might now be able to run Phil Jackson’s triangle offence, but it’s unlikely that liberal democratic capitalism was included in the playbook.

Legitimising Human Rights Violations

Any engagement with North Korea is couched in a moral dilemma.

Frequent interaction with foreigners may increase the chance of ideological pollution and the spread of dangerous information among ordinary North Koreans.   According to this theory, social discord could result if the North Korean public are able to make a comparison of their everyday lives with the economic and political realities of the outside world.

Does the presence of foreigners offer an opportunity to burst the bubble of official propaganda and ideology, or are engagement efforts ultimately self-defeating?

Aside from the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the Kim family dynasty has been responsible for numerous documented human rights abuses, from collective punishment to gulags.  By travelling to North Korea and spending money in the country, an argument can be made that Rodman (and anyone else who has gone there, me included) is contributing sorely-needed foreign currency income that props up the Kim regime and enables it to continue violating the human rights of its citizens.

The presence in Pyongyang of high profile foreign guests like Rodman and Google chairman Eric Schmidt earlier in the year can also be interpreted as bestowing legitimacy on the Kim regime.  This is why the US State Department has distanced itself from both Rodman and Schmidt’s private missions to Pyongyang this year, lest they be interpreted as a de facto recognition of the North Korean government.

The legitimacy question is as much about reinforcing government ideology as it is about international prestige.  Brian Myers encapsulates this problem in this quote from the Washington Post…

What many American travelers overlook is that by respectfully visiting North Korean tourist sites in view of the locals, they are serving to reinforce the personality cult, just as those foreigners did in earlier decades who allowed themselves to be photographed while grinning down at one of Kim Il Sung’s books. It is even worse when Americans succumb, as far too many do, to their guides’ pressure to bow to a monument or lay plastic flowers at one. To the groups of schoolchildren standing around this is a manifestation of American tribute or penance.

Let’s frame this in another context: does the annual reception for the NBA champions at the Whitehouse legitimise the US President in the eyes of the American people?  You bet it does, whether it’s Barack Obama posing for a photo op with Lebron James and Dwayne Wade, George W Bush welcoming Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs or Ronald Reagan sipping tea with Magic Johnson’s Showtime squad.  These are famous individuals that ordinary people look up to, a star power that national leaders of all persuasions are happy to tap into by association.

Is Basketball the Real Winner?

There is no satisfying answer to the engagement question.   Dennis Rodman’s visit to North Korea is by far the strangest interaction that I can remember between the DPRK and the outside world, an episode that illustrates the great moral tension that comes with engaging with the DPRK.

Perhaps it is lucky that Rodman sat next to Kim Jong Un and did not play in the exhibition game in Pyongyang.  After all, what kind of diplomatic incident might have ensued if the Worm reacted to a bad call from the North Korean referees?

I will sign off by relaying the best quote I have yet seen on the Rodman visit, from Chris Chase of USA Today Sports…

Here’s a tip, Dennis: Don’t ask Kim Jong Un about Psy. And if you do meet him, bring back a picture of you dunking on him while wearing a wedding dress, or this trip never happened.


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