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Bizarre Friendship Between Dennis Rodman And Kim Jong-Un – OpEd

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Dennis Rodman is one of the most famous American basketball players of all time. Because of his great playing qualities in defense and rebounds, he was nicknamed “the worm”. He led the great dynasties of the Detroit Pistons and the Chicago Bulls in the 1980s and 1990s and won a total of five NBA titles. Twice was named the best defensive player of the year. Because of his unconventional, i.e. colorful lifestyle full of scandals and partying, he became a favorite of the media and the public and earned the title of “bad boy” of American basketball. Precisely because of his unusual lifestyle, he didn’t fall into oblivion when he retired from basketball. Rodman continued to promote basketball around the world as a sports diplomat, eventually meeting powerful politicians such as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un.

It was Rodman’s relationship with North Korea and its Supreme Leader that became special, it went beyond sports and gained diplomatic/political contours. Since 2013 and his first visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Rodman has an informal but important influence on relations between Pyongyang and Washington. This influence becomes more and more powerful over time, since it is strongly supported by the media. Rodman gave a new, more relaxed rhytm to American-North Korean relations. In the beginning, Rodman wholeheartedly refused the role of the American envoy, clearly and loudly telling reporters: “I am not a diplomat.” But if he looks like a diplomat and writes posts on social media in diplomatic style, we may wonder if he is truly a diplomat? Although it wasn’t his original intention, Rodman became America’s practical diplomat for North Korea. Certainly, the person next to Donald Trump who individually made the most personal contribution to the normalization of relations between two hostile countries.

Rodman’s first visit to Pyongyang took place in February 2013 thanks to the Vice Media Group, which organized a visit to the totalitarian state to promote basketball. Rodman attended an exhibition basketball game in which the Harlem Globetrotters played against North Korean team. The event was labeled “basketball diplomacy”. Namely, Kim Jong-un is a big fan of the famous Chicago Bulls generation from the 1990s, for which Rodman played three seasons alongside Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. It was Jordan who Kim first invited to visit his country. More precisely, according to documents obtained by The San Diego Union-Tribune, the government of DPR Korea sent Jordan an invitation to visit the country, while the South Korean company Samsung, which promotes the unification of the two Koreas, offered to organize the entire venture. Jordan politely declined the invitation. However, Rodman responded positively.

After the first meeting, Rodman stated in several interviews that Kim was his “lifelong friend” and a “great guy”, and suggested that then-President Barack Obama call and talk to Kim on the phone. In May 2013, after reading an article in The Seattle Times, Rodman wrote a tweet asking his “friend” Kim Jong-un to “do him a favor” and free Christian Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae, who had been sentenced to 15 years of hard work. Rodman promised to go to N. Korea to save him. He criticized Obama, saying: “We have a black president who can’t even talk to Jong-un… Obama can’t do anything, I don’t know why he doesn’t want to talk to him.”

Rodman went to East Asia in September 2013. While in Beijing, he said he would visit N. Korea again in order to establish a basketball league there and improve American-North Korean relations. He refused to talk about Bae. That same month, when he returned from China, he lost his temper when asked questions about the missionary, saying it was not his responsibility. However, Rodman eventually changed his tune and once again used his abilities for positive purposes. During a 2014 CNN interview after suggesting that Bae might have deserved his fate, Rodman quickly apologized. All the hubbub worked in the missionary’s favor and he was released at the end of 2014. Finally, he thanked Rodman for his help.

More trips and exhibition matches followed. In 2014, Rodman led the crowd at a game between the North Korean team and some retired NBA players in singing “Happy Birthday” to Kim, who was also present. It even seemed that he bowed to the Supreme Leader on that occasion. After President Trump was inaugurated in 2017, Rodman traveled to Pyongyang and presented Trump’s popular book, “The Art of the Deal,” to North Korean Sports Minister Kim Il-guk. Although the Trump administration has repeatedly stated that Rodman did not have and does not have an official diplomatic role, this does not mean that the famous basketball player does not have credit for the historic summits between Trump and Kim that took place in Singapore in 2018 and Hanoi in 2019. And Rodman was on the sidelines of the meeting in Singapore. He wept openly in an interview with CNN while recounting his journey. “I am so happy. I told everyone the door would open. When I returned home, I received so many death threats, but I believed in North Korea. I couldn’t even go home. I had to hide for 30 days but I held my head high… I knew things would change.”

The frequent visits of the famous American basketball player to his country can be considered as another important proof that Kim has a great interest in Western culture. In addition, other indicators that the North Korean leader wants to bring some “spirit of the West” into his country are the openness to international tourism (eg the water park in Pyongyang, the Masik ski resort), the creation of the female pop group Moranbong, the easy entry of foreign investments, etc. Since socializing with Rodman isn’t secret but public and solemn, it’s evident that Kim wants to gently open his country to the rest of the world through a relatively safe zone, sports.

It can be noted that the visits of the “bad boy” of American basketball show the extremely strong personal power of Kim in the political system of the DPRK. This is evident because Kim is the only person among the regime elite who would have any interest in bringing Rodman to the “hermit kingdom”. Despite Rodman’s huge international popularity, about 99% of the citizens of N. Korea had never even heard of him until he arrived on his first visit to their country. The enormous publicity that Rodman received in the North Korean media is very significant. He was pompously portrayed in television reports and appeared on the front pages of the regime newspaper Rodong Sinmun. Kim used his newfound political power, gained from the death of his father in late 2011, to invite and meet one of his childhood heroes. Kim is known to have been an ardent fan of the 1990s Chicago Bulls. As a result of the publicity, North Koreans could see their leader associating with a rather unusual foreigner, a tall dark-skinned American who isn’t an enemy but a friend.

It was Rodman who first revealed to the world that Kim and his wife Ri Sol-ju had a baby girl. On one occasion, he was invited to the private residence of the North Korean leader. In an interview with the British tabloid The Sun, Rodman compared the residence to a “seven-star resort.” Due to the glamorous lifestyle he enjoyed during his time in the NBA and beyond, one might assume it would be difficult to surprise Rodman with luxury, but the American was truly impressed by what he saw and the carefree atmosphere he felt inside the heavily guarded compound. Namely, soon North Korea experts discovered that it was the Wonsan residence of the Supreme Leader. “It’s like going to Hawaii or Ibiza, but he’s the only one who lives there. He likes people around him to be happy… If you drink a bottle of tequila, it’s the best tequila, anything you want, he has the best.” Kim’s private yacht, about 60 m long, also managed to impress Rodman, who described the boat as ” crossing between the ferry and the Disney ship”.

Although more than casual, the aforementioned experiences were not at all strange to Rodman, who sees nothing controversial in the fact that a rich and powerful politician lives in shameless luxury while at the same time the country he leads is one of the poorest in the world. In addition, Rodman didn’t understand the incompatibility of the existence of a seven-star resort and the luxury reserved for the regime’s elite, while this very same elite publicly promotes socialism, the equality of all citizens and talks about the spartan lifestyle of the DPRK leadership. Admittedly, Rodman isn’t the only politically myopic celebrity, because many celebrities from the West who were guests of a similar Yugoslav communist regime didn’t have any objections. For example, in Brijuni, stars like Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor enjoyed the luxury and company of dictator Josip Broz Tito, and they didn’t ask themselves how the reckless hedonistic enjoyment of the communist elite was possible in a socialist society.

However, Rodman’s knowledge is valuable because he is one of the few foreigners who had the opportunity to meet the North Korean dictator up close. In 2017, during an appearance on Stephen Colbert’s Late Night Show on CBS, he spoke openly about his good friend Kim Jong-un. Calling him a kim, he revealed the true side of the North Korean leader. He revealed that the North Korean leader despises war. “The last time I was there a couple of years ago, he said: ‘I don’t want war.’ These are true words. Like I said, I’ll take you there and let you listen to him talk. He’s more of a kid than anything. I think his grandfather, his father, passed that regime on to him. I think he really wants to change his culture. But I think he is forced to be in this position. Because every time I go there he has changed so much for people. The people don’t see it.”

In current political times, what was unthinkable until recently is possible: yesterday’s celebrities become political activists and sometimes something more than that. This is how it became a reality that top businessman and reality star Donald Trump became the American president, and comedian and actor Volodymyr Zelensky became the president of Ukraine. Under such circumstances, it became possible for Dennis Rodman to be the American diplomat in charge of thawing relations with North Korea.

Rodman is the most popular and prominent American that Kim Jong-un met before Trump. That’s an impressive fact worth pondering. The only American representative who got unhindered access to the dictator who threatens to destroy the USA is Dennis Rodman. Some believe that this fact makes CIA officials cringe, while others claim that Rodman’s obsession with North Korea is precisely a product of the CIA. If the latter is truly true, then Rodman is the most brilliant CIA agent of all time and one of the best American actors. However, this is probably not true because Rodman is an independent person who does not like dictates, likes to think and wants to change the world for the better, appreciates diversity and doesn’t divide people according to origin or skin color. When it comes to American relations with North Korea, Rodman is definitely the winner because he gave a big blow to the relaxation of relations. If it was someone more closer to the system, e.g. a celebrity close to Obama or Biden, he would probably receive some recognition, just as Trump would won the Nobel Peace Prize if someone else was in his place. However, the most important are the results, and they deserve praise.

*Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

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