That Dennis Rodman is unconventional, even unbalanced, was evident when he played professional basketball. His athletic skills won him a lucrative contract, but his behavior suggested no interest in diplomatic protocol.
He has been much criticized for visiting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a brutal totalitarian dictatorship. There are no political freedoms or civil liberties.
Open Doors just released its latest World Watch List and the DPRK again is rated the globe’s worst religious persecutor. The government tolerates a little more private economic activity, but that free space remains painfully small.
Nevertheless, cultural and sports exchanges should be encouraged. Americans gain a small window into the Hermit Kingdom, as well as an equally restricted opportunity to share unscripted moments with individual North Koreans. When I visited years ago I was usually accompanied by a driver, interpreter, and handler. But there were moments when I was alone with one or another. And such opportunities are more frequent with larger groups which involve more local officials.
Private engagement of this kind may help influence North Koreans who might play a leadership role in the future. The family dynasty will not last forever and may implode sooner rather than later. It would be better for the U.S. if more North Koreans see Americans and realize that they do not match the demons of regime propaganda.
In fact, the U.S. government also would benefit from engagement. Washington should offer to establish consular relations, creating a window into the “Hermit Kingdom” and a presence that could intercede when Americans are arrested, as is becoming more common.
Thus, Rodman’s trips are not objectionable in the abstract. Let his team of washed up NBA players journey to Pyongyang. And then let the North send its team to America.
What Rodman got wrong was so shamelessly sucking up to the “young general.” Calling Kim his friend for life, singing happy birthday to him, and seemingly endorsing the dictator and dictatorial system were grotesque.
Rodman need not publicly denounce Kim. But he could go about his business, quietly polite to North Korean officials and restrained when responding to American journalists. He could simply say he went to the DPRK for sports, not politics, and then shut up—though, admittedly, that would be completely out of character for him.
The basketball great even glimpsed a small truth about l’affaire de Kenneth Bae. The Christian missionary obviously is a man of courage and conviction. And the government’s relentless persecution of religious believers is a human rights outrage. There was nothing wrong with “what Kenneth Bae did,” as Rodman suggested, that justifies the former’s imprisonment.
However, Bae knew the risks he was taking. He chose to visit the North and, apparently, violate North Korean law by engaging in evangelism. He knew arrest and imprisonment would result if he was caught. Unlike the hapless 85-year-old American tourist who found himself detained and accused of war crimes more than six decades ago, Bae intentionally though bravely put himself at risk.
Thus, Rodman’s response when pressed on the issue, “that’s not my job,” was callous, not outrageous. Still, basic decency should have caused the player to make an effort on the missionary’s behalf.
An indirect approach likely would have been most effective. Rodman could have cited his obvious commitment, despite significant criticism at home, to draw the U.S. and North closer together, but explained that Bae’s continued imprisonment impeded that effort. He then could have advocated Bae’s release as a good will gesture.
Rodman is a convenient lightening rod. But he isn’t completely wrong.
North Korea is a great human tragedy. And we should hope that the next informal ambassador to the DPRK is someone less prone to inane outbursts. Nevertheless, Dennis Rodman is (a little) better than nothing.