This Dennis Rodman saga just keeps getting more and more unbelievable. Unless you live under a rock and/or are otherwise disconnected from modern technology, you’ve heard at least something about the former Bulls forward’s North Korean activities backed by Irish oddsmakers Paddy Power, PLC.
Not only has the guy visited North Korea twice, referring to dictator Kim Jong-un as “a very good guy“, he is now saying he plans to return in January to host two exhibition games with former NBA players. He calls it “basketball diplomacy”, indicating at least some knowledge of Nixon’s 1971 ping-pong diplomacy campaigns between the U.S. and China in the midst of the Cold War.
The media is having a field day: here is one of the most colorful (literally, too) players in NBA history, financed by Irish bookies, cozying up to the world’s most brutal dictatorship, then showing up to the press conference in classic Rodman fashion complete with cigar, booze*, chains, oversized shades, and more piercings than I can count. Ridiculous, wouldn’t you say?
But here’s the thing – what if Rodman isn’t so wrong? Beyond all the media hoopla, what if somehow, someway, this ridiculous drama thaws the ice-cold tension with the North Korean regime? Personally, I think it’s a slim chance at best. BUT, consider this: Dennis Rodman isn’t flying solo. He and Paddy Power have the support of the independent non-profit NGO International Crisis Group, whose stated objective is to prevent and resolve deadly conflict. Dr. Daniel Pinkston directs the North East Asia arm of the ICG, and spoke at Rodman’s press conference. Earlier that day, Pinkston published his reasoning for why “basketball diplomacy” could work. An excerpt:
“The Rodman visit was very important to [North Korean] leadership. Kim Jong-un snubbed former US presidents and other heads of state, as well as a former high-level US government official and the executive chairman of Google, but Kim turned out for Rodman and appeared giddy as they sat next to each other and watched the game. …
The Rodman visit is subversive because the image of Kim embracing Rodman can be perceived as the leadership tolerating or accepting someone who is different. South Korea’s Daily NK reported that North Koreans in the provinces were stunned to see Kim embracing an American with numerous tattoos and body piercings and likened it to Kim embracing a ‘goblin or gangster’. …
North Korea’s leaders want their system to survive, and any changes they make are intended to strengthen the system, not to reform it. They have learned from Gorbachev’s ‘mistakes’ of seeking political reforms and restructuring to improve the Soviet system. The North Korean leadership apparently views sport exchanges as furthering its own agenda. …
However, ‘basketball diplomacy’ could have unintended consequences for the regime, just as Gorbachev’s perestroika did for the USSR and the lifting of travel restrictions did for East Germany. Personal exchanges are probably the best way to expose North Koreans to different types of governance and social organisation, which is the first step in the thought process that results in questioning the regime.” (see Pinkston)
Basically, Pinkston says that before North Korea can change, we must make inroads into the North Korean thought process. Dennis Rodman represents a new approach, an attempt to breach the norm and create a measure of goodwill. Who’s to say if it will go smoothly – the North Korean regime is erratic and unpredictable, and events could spiral wildly out of control.** Rodman & Co. might be right, might be wrong. But Paddy Power and the International Crisis Group have a very good point: in order to make positive change, the door must first open. It’s just curious this is who they chose to try it.
* Visible as he makes his entrance at the 6:20 mark.
** Example: Dennis & Kim. (Sounds like it could be the name of Comedy Central’s next big thing)