This week, we’ve been treated to the increasingly familiar sight of former NBA star and provocateur Dennis Rodman attending events in Pyongyang, North Korea. It’s his fourth trip in less than 12 months.
The Weird American Athlete Goes to Weird Country story is just too easy not to cover. The most passive player in this tragicomedy is Rodman’s home country, the United States. The U.S. State Department has deployed the rhetorical equivalent of an embarrassed teenager whose dad has shown up to dance at his prom. Something along the lines of “this has nothing to do with us” is what the State Department has said with every one of Rodman’s trip.
This is an understandably cautious position. After all, Rodman has professed his love and undying affection for Kim, and he is probably not a canny enough operator to spearhead any form of political outreach along the lines of the “Ping-Pong diplomacy.”
On this trip, Rodman addressed the unavoidably political nature of a relationship with North Korea, saying his visits could “open the doors” to “talk about certain things.” In the CNN interview, he argued that it’s a “great idea for the world.”
Rodman’s celebrity status and sporting prowess has given him access to Kim. At some point, when both the U.S. and North Korean governments are feeling a little brave, perhaps they can try to thaw the ice with more professional diplomats tagging along on cultural or sporting exchanges.
There are precedents. For example, the U.S.-China Ping-Pong diplomacy of the 1970s had its genesis in table tennis player by the name of Glen Cowan. Once he broke the ice, the governments began talking.
The kind of engagement that Rodman is pushing cannot always be seen as merely rewards for a naughty regime, as much as we appear locked into a carrot-and-stick way of thinking about relations with North Korea. It can be mutually beneficial. We have the potential to gain as much as they do. Breakthroughs might be sudden and surprising, but they are usually underpinned by creative thinking, dialogue and the mutual acceptance that no one can get exactly what they want.
Domestically, it is great PR for Kim Jong Un. He gets to appear gregarious and inclusive in front of his people. Notwithstanding his uncle Jang Song-thaek’s execution, this is the image he has been assiduously cultivating. He’s eager to promote his friendly, approachable image while at the same time enjoying watching some former stars play his favorite sport.
For now, little will come out of Rodman’s visits other than extraneous news. But as Pyongyang continues to devote resources and energy to sports development, its appetite for athletic exchanges will increase. Let’s warily hope, to use Rodman’s phrase, that this can “open the doors” to other things.
[Excerpts from a CNN opinion piece by Andray Abrahamian, executive director of a nonprofit that provides educational training in business and economics for young North Koreans.]