Hoop Pipedreams

Ping-Pong Diplomacy Not An Option? Try Ding-Dong Diplomacy

Is Dennis Rodman’s trip to North Korea the international relations debacle his detractors say it is? Yes, definitely. And maybe not.

Hope against hope, this week I had planned to do what the rest of the world seemingly could not: Ignore Dennis Rodman. I wanted to close my eyes until the former NBA star came back—or, quite conceivably, did not come back—from the black hole that is North Korea. I thought I’d close my ears, too, to spare myself from hearing him pontificate incoherently at some CNN anchor who dared ask what the heck he was doing over there.

But I have to hand it to him: With all due respect to elephants, it’s the Rodman in the room that’s impossible to ignore. The Worm has a way of burrowing himself (itself?) into our frontal lobes. And so I’ve succumbed; the former Piston star has elbowed his way into my key, and stayed in the paint far longer than three seconds.

More like 12 months. Twelve months of asking myself: what the huh? What is he up to, exactly? And are his repeated visits to the DPRK the international debacle his detractors insist they are?

A year ago this week, I too was in North Korea, on a small delegation with Gov. Bill Richardson and Google’s Eric Schmidt. We had three ambitious but very specific goals: one, to try to negotiate the release of Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American who had been detained for a month, and has since been sentenced to 15 years hard labor; two, to meet with North Korean scientists to promote the virtues of a more open Internet; three, to persuade their chief nuclear negotiator that his regime’s atomic saber rattling was not only unwarranted and unnecessary, it was unproductive.

I suppose you could add a fourth: Get home safely.

A month or so later, Rodman swept through Pyongyang, apparently with one goal only: To cozy up to Kim Jong-un, the most enigmatic, unpredictable, and—it would soon be revealed—casually murderous leader on the planet. Put it this way: If Kim were ever to close a few lanes on a bridge, it would be so he could push a few of his closest advisors off of it.

No matter; Rodman wanted a new friend. And to get it, the former Piston became a globetrotter.

Gov. Richardson and I held our breaths, but kept our minds open and our hopes intact. As we saw it, Rodman and his crew—the only Americans ever to meet with the young North Korean leader since he took power—had just as good a chance as anyone to determine what makes Kim tick. To take the measure of the man. Instead, Rodman came home and told George Stephanopoulos a self-evident untruth: “He’s just a great guy.”

“He’s my friend,” he said. “But,” he added, “as far as what he does”—starve his population, threaten the world, kill his family—he told Stephanopoulos, “You deal with it.”

Gee, thanks, Dennis.

Rodman may have been a great rebounder, but he never led the league in assists.

After that first trip, having heard the chorus of jeers from the cheap seats and the State Department, there was a fleeting moment when Rodman seemed to have gained an appreciation for the duty he had. With great power forward, comes great responsibility. So in May he asked, via Twitter, that Kim “do me a solid” and release Bae. It appeared The Worm had turned, even though his ignorance remained wrong side up. Because if we’ve learned anything about Kim in the last two years—a time when the Supreme Leader had both his ex-girlfriend and uncle executed—Kim doesn’t “do solids.” And I doubt he reads tweets.

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He threatens nuclear annihilation. He oppresses his people. He makes his own relatives disappear.

And yet, this past week Rodman went back on this fourth trip to the DPRK, with an entire team of former NBA players—but still no clear purpose—in tow. “Basketball diplomacy,” he called it, riding the historic coattails of the Thrilla in Manila and the Rumble in the Jungle with what his sponsors have dubbed the “Big Bang in Pyongyang.” (Somehow, I doubt that’ll stick.)

On this trip, Rodman put his heart on his sleeve—and his foot in his mouth—and said he “loves” Kim. (Slow down, everybody. He “loves” Kim, he’s not “in love” with Kim. Let’s not get carried away.) To prove his devotion, he even did his best Marilyn Monroe impression, singing a pre-game rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Kim courtside. For all we know, he wore a flouncy dress—he certainly owns a few. He also had the good sense to lose the game—at least, the one half in which Rodman played, until he sidled up to Kim to watch the rest. (Kiss Cam, where are you when we need you most?!)

It’s easy to write off such sideshow antics as mere ridiculousness. So let’s do that. But what’s truly offensive was the interview with CNN, when Rodman implied that Kenneth Bae deserved the cruel treatment he has received. And then Rodman lost whatever benefit of the doubt people like me might have been clinging to. Bae’s sister has accepted Rodman’s apology—he claims he was stressed and had been drinking—but that says more about the sister’s good grace than about Rodman’s bad excuses.

Despite his indictment of Bae, Rodman has vowed he’s not political. “It’s all about the game,” he insisted. “People love to do one thingsports.” Yet he has implied that if North Korea and the United States can cooperate between the lines, they might begin to find a common ground outside them. When it comes to Kim Jong-un, Rodman harbors some truly formidable hoop pipedreams: “One day this dude is going to open because these ten guys here.” The problem is that “this dude” does more than “one thing”—unless Rodman is referring to despotism generally, which I doubt. He’s not “just” a “great guy.” And North Korea, since long before granddad Kim Il-sung’s reign, hardly has a history of playing by the rules, inside or outside the lines.

There are a thousand examples of how the DPRK doesn’t “do solids.” My personal favorite: A decade ago, China sent much-needed food aid to Pyongyang, via the usual way: aboard trains from eastern China. North Korea’s official response? Thanks for the aid. And thanks for the trains. North Korean officials claimed they, too, were part of the aid package—news that came as a surprise to the Chinese train engineers, who had to scramble to find their way back across the border. Some walked. They had no choice; the army had simply confiscated their cabooses.

So forget basketball. When it comes to North Korea, I wouldn’t even sit across from Kim in a game of Monopoly. After Kim stole my railroads, there’s a good chance he’d send me directly to jail.

That’s North Korea.

So yes, Rodman is ignorant.

And yes, it’s a debacle.

But here’s the thing: It’s also the only debacle we’ve got. So lacking any alternatives, let’s grasp onto the one possibility that makes Rodman’s repeated trips something remotely more palatable than just a propaganda backfire. Let’s consider that Rodman might be the perfect vessel—empty as he may be, unwitting as he clearly is—to keep a channel open to the most closed regime on the planet. As Rev. Jesse Jackson asked, “Why are we discussing North Korea today? Because of Dennis Rodman.” Faint praise, but praise nonetheless.

The Reverend is right—we’re talking about North Korea thanks to a former loser on Celebrity Apprentice. Not thanks to his skill at diplomacy, or his geopolitical insight, but thanks to his ignorance—blissful or alcoholic—of the fact that cozying up to Kim might not be such a good idea. Which may, somehow, make it a great idea. He can’t be taken too seriously, because he’s not a serious person. He’s silliness personified. Even the Supreme Leader must recognize that. (Mustn’t he? He must.) Perhaps a year from now, or a decade from now, we’ll be grateful that Kim was willing to meet with an American. Any American. Even an ignorant American. Even one who doesn’t understand what he’s doing, or why he’s doing it.

Ping-pong diplomacy not an option? Then do me a solid: Try ding-dong diplomacy.