The NBA great takes another shot at basketball diplomacy in North Korea
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is a ruthless dictator for many, but for former NBA star Dennis Rodman he is a “friend for life”. As such Rodman travelled to Pyongyang on Monday and is planning a present for Kim’s birthday today: a game of basketball featuring former NBA players.
On Saturday, Rodman released the list of retired sportsmen who had agreed to travel to the hermetic North Korea to pay tribute to the country’s leader, an unquestionable enemy of the United States. Kenny Anderson, Cliff Robinson, Vin Baker and Craig Hodges, among others, will help the controversial Rodman, 52, further pursue what he has termed “basketball diplomacy”.
Rodman first visited the one-party state in February last year, explaining: Kim “loves basketball. And I said the same thing, I said, [US President Barack] Obama loves basketball.
“Let’s start there. [Kim] wants Obama to do one thing: call him,” Rodman said after talking to the North Korean leader.
Kim rose to power in 2011 upon the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, who was reportedly a fan of NBA great Michael Jordan.
In 2013, Rodman travelled to North Korea with the Harlem Globetrotters exhibition team to shoot a basketball documentary series for HBO. It was a revealing visit: he noted the country’s passion for basketball, launched a friendship with Kim and saw the chance to initiate a diplomatic opening.”
My previous travels have allowed me to feel the enthusiasm and warmth of fans,” Rodman said.
The game is a birthday present that is set to further strengthen ties between this unlikely pair. The kind of access to Kim that Rodman claims to have is surprising, considering how inscrutable the North Korean leader otherwise appears to be. In September, he told the British newspaper the Guardian that he had held in his arms Ju-ae, Kim’s daughter with his wife Ri Sol-ju, and that he spent a few days at the beach with the family.
The contrast between both men could hardly be greater. Rodman stands out for his piercings, tattoos, celebrity girlfriends and eccentricities – although they never overshadowed his five NBA championship titles.
In the 1990s, when the player known as The Worm shone in the NBA, Kim was a student at a Swiss boarding school and lived in a Western environment. Basketball was one of his great passions.
But, for all his good intentions, there is little sign that Rodman is softening any hearts, at least in Washington.
“Clearly, you’ve got the regime spending money to wine and dine foreign visitors when they should be feeding their own people,” US State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in March. Both countries remain technically at war after clashing on opposite sides of the Korean War, a three-year conflict which ended in a truce in 1953. The recent execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who was until then the second most powerful man in the country after his nephew, was strongly criticised by the United States.
“This is another example of the extreme brutality of the North Korean regime,” Ventrell said.
Rodman has distanced himself from certain events in North Korea. Kim is his friend, but he does not approve of everything the North Korean leader does, the former basketball star said after his first trip to the country. Rodman remains silent on allegations of human rights violations in the northeast Asian nation.
“I’m not a politician. I’m not an ambassador,” he told reporters on Monday, en route to Pyongyang. He himself did not comment on Kim’s uncle’s execution last month, but the Irish bookmaker Paddy Power pulled out of plans to sponsor the birthday basketball game.
Rodman puts basketball ahead of threats, silence and sanctions, and he is determined to bring the United States and North Korea closer together. US citizen Merrill Newman, who had been sentenced to 15 years in prison by North Korean authorities, was released in December. It remained uncertain, however, whether her release was linked to Rodman’s activities or to basketball diplomacy.