"There is nobody at the CIA who could tell you more personally about Kim Jong Un than Dennis Rodman, and that in itself is scary." -- Col. Stephen Ganyard, USMC (ret.)
Dennis Rodman's trip to North Korea wasn't an accident or an oddity, but the result of a gonzo media company facilitating a summit between between a Basketball Hall of Famer and an oppressive dictator who grew up a Bulls fan. But making sense of it doesn't equip Rodman for the international politics he stumbled into.
This is what we know:
- Kim Jong Un's father and predecessor Kim Jong Il was an ardent fan of the NBA who, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, had regulation courts at most of his palaces and "a video library of practically every game Michael Jordan ever played for the Bulls."
- In 2000, attempting to warm U.S.-DPRK relations, Madeline Albright gave Kim Jong Il an NBA basketball signed by Jordan that is now on display in a Pyongyang museum. The dictator invited His Airness to North Korea the following year; Jordan declined.
- The basketball addiction was apparently passed on to Kim Jong Un. Kim attended a Swiss high school under an assumed identity, where he wore Air Jordans, displayed pictures of himself with Toni Kukoc and Kobe Bryant, played tenaciously on the court, and "spent hours doing meticulous pencil drawings of Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan."
- Vice Media, which arranged the trip for a newsmagazine that will air on HBO, is no stranger to North Korea. Co-founder Shane Smith has visited the country twice before to make Vice documentaries, and information gathered then spurred the idea for a basketball exhibition starring Rodman and three Harlem Globetrotters. (Vice paid the players an undisclosed sum, according to the New York Times.) Though there was no promise of meeting Kim when the trip began, "we knew he’d be tempted by basketball," said a Vice spokesman.
So it was that Dennis Rodman -- late of Celebrity Mole, Celebrity Apprentice, Celebrity Rehab, and Dr. Drew's Sober House -- became the first American to meet with Kim Jong Un, the master of a nuclear weapons platform that threatens the civilized world, since he assumed power after his father's death.
Photo Credit: VICE, Kim Jong-un with Dennis Rodman
Pound-for-pound, Dennis Rodman was the best rebounder in NBA history. He won five NBA titles and was twice named the league's Defensive Player of the Year. He is a Hall of Fame basketball player that fewer and fewer people remember for his brilliance on the court. This is, perhaps, a credit to his individualism -- a collection of hair dye, tattoos, piercings, and questionable life decisions that could have been considered charming if his unprecedented trip to North Korea hadn't turned him into an apologist for Kim Jong Un.
This is not, mind you, a defense for established government protocol. For a country as closed off as North Korea, any access inside the walls is good access, and Western sports and culture can open a closed society faster than any American bureaucrat. The problem arises not from Dennis Rodman playing in an exhibition in North Korea; it surfaces when Rodman returns to the U.S. and is treated, by default, as the sole subject matter expert on What Kim Jong Un Is Like In Person. When that nationally televised debriefing occurs, the embarrassment of wearing a blazer adorned with American currency pales in comparison to flailing at the inane softballs tossed by the nearly lifelike mannequin of George Stephanopoulos.
Rodman's appearance on ABC's This Week to discuss meeting Kim Jong Un is perhaps the greatest disparity between a subject's import and an interviewee's intellect in televised American history. Rodman, fresh off a state-sponsored tour of the DPRK and a sumptuous feast with the dictator of a starving nation, speaks highly of Kim, prompting Stephanopoulos -- an intellectual lightweight whose haircut does most of the talking -- to poke around Rodman's brain for enlightening truths couched in a complete lack of factual awareness.
While the quote that's landed on headlines is Kim's desire to talk to President Obama -- "He wants Obama to do one thing: call him" -- the rest of the interview exposed Rodman as someone barely capable of being in a reality show, much less an adult who can discuss foreign affairs.
George Stephanopoulos: When you said you love [Kim] and you think he's awesome, were you aware of his threats to destroy the United States and his regime's horrendous record on human rights?
Dennis Rodman: I didn't look at all that right there. I understand what he's doing. I don't condone that. I hate the fact that he's doing that, but the fact of it is, that's a human being, though. He let his guard down. He did one thing to me -- been a friend. I didn't talk about that. I understand that. I understand that. But--
GS: Don't you have a responsibility to ask him about it so that you don't be perceived as sort of propping up his regime, his cult of personality?
DR: When you grow up in that environment, especially when your grandpa and your father... the kid's only 28 years old. [Kim is 30 - Ed.]
Here we see the massive moral divide between what Stephanopoulos views as a responsible visit to North Korea -- grilling your dictatorial host on his human rights record lest you be seen as some pro-dictator poseur -- and Dennis Rodman's reality: a plane flight to a foreign country for money.
What we learned: Kim Jong Un is nice to guests, assuming the guests played an integral role on his favorite NBA team growing up. Also: George Stephanopoulos expects Americans in North Korea to press the head of state on human rights issues, as if Laura Ling never got sentenced to 12 years in a prison camp for inadvertently setting foot in North Korea.
GS What did [Kim] tell you about America, and what did you learn about him?
DR: Guess what? The one thing we talked about -- you can see the clips of it -- he loves basketball. And I said, "Obama loves basketball. Let's start there."
A sparkling moment of clarity from Rodman, and perhaps the only moment in five minutes where he wasn't completely out of his element. Not only are both Kim and Obama basketball fans -- they're both Bulls fans. (This is also everything that you ever need to know about sports.)
DR: [Kim's] a great guy. If you sit down and talk to him... perception is perceiving how things work --
GS: A great guy who puts 200,000 people in prison camps?
DR: Wellllll... you know, guess what? We do the same thing here.
GS: We have prison camps here in the United States?
DR: We don't have prison camps, guess what? This is all politics, right? This is all politics, right? Anyone think -- [Kim] don't want to do that. He don't want to do that. But you know what, dude? It's more like... I'm not, like, a diplomat. I don't want to do that.
If you wade through Rodman's confusion and bullshit, you can glimpse his missed opportunity. America may not have prison camps, but its corrections system is disastrously overcrowded, and the rise of private prisons has increased the likelihood of human rights abuses within our borders. With more than two million Americans behind bars, the United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world.
I'm not equating the United States and North Korea; no reasonable person would liken America's rule of constitutional law with North Korea's rule of secret police. But there's an intelligent discussion to be had about the human rights of people incarcerated by different governments, and it's nowhere to be found in Stephanopoulos's sanctimonious grilling of a jock-turned-has-been-reality-TV-star with a history of substance abuse.
GS: But it sounds like you're apologizing for him.
DR: No, I'm not apologizing for him. I think the fact that, you know, he's a good guy to me. He's my friend. I don't condone what he does, but as far as a person-to-person [basis], he's my friend. As far as what he does... [shrugs]
GS: Someone who hypothetically is a murderer who's your friend is still a murderer.
DR: Well, you know what, dude? Seriously, you know what? Guess what? What I did was history. It's just like we do over here in America, right? It's amazing, we got presidents over here who do the same thing, right? It's amazing that Bill Clinton can do one thing, have sex with his secretary, and get really get away with it and still be powerful.
1. Rodman is right: he DID make history, though he makes that boast to Stephanopoulos with more flair and import than it warrants. A garishly-dressed pawn with facial piercings is still a pawn, and Rodman will be lucky if his role in the history of American-North Korean relations falls somewhere between Mrs. O'Leary's cow and Paul Tibbets. (Humanity will be lucky if it doesn't.)
2. I'm less troubled by Rodman's lack of circumspection than by his utter failure to make a simple comparison. If you're going to compare your friend Kim Jong Un to an American president (not a recommended stance in a debate, by the way), modern American history offers no shortage of presidents with blood on their hands, from Bush's invasion of Iraq to Obama's use of drone attacks to the succession of Democrats and Republicans who waged war in Vietnam for two decades. Saying "Bill Clinton had sex with his secretary," aside from being factually suspect, is not a strong comeback when you're being asked about Kim's prison camps.
GS: So are you going to go back?
DR: Yes I am. I'ma go back, do one thing: find out more. What's really going on. Find out more.
GS: Next time you go back, you should bring this report from Human Rights Watch with you, and maybe ask some questions about that.
DR: Thank you for the report. Guess what? Guess what? Don't hate me. Don't hate me. Guess what don't hate me. Guess what don't hate me.
Dennis Rodman is a reality TV retread, and his response to Stephanopoulos' condescending "gift" of a Human Rights Watch report is a cliché of any reality TV confrontation: any critic is a hater, and therefore any criticism -- however valid -- is dismissed as jealousy from the h8rz. Stephanopoulos would have found more success recommending another reality cliché for Rodman's next trip to North Korea: "I'm not here to make friends."
"I'm not a diplomat," Rodman told Stephanopoulos earlier, and it's one more thing that he's wrong about. Rodman certainly isn't qualified as a diplomat, but that's exactly what he is, and the fact that he's America's only diplomat to North Korea is only the latest indicator of just how massively screwed up that country is.
More than a diplomat, though, Dennis Rodman is Dennis Rodman, and we can't ask him to be Henry Kissinger any more than we can ask a jellyfish to take over the space program. By virtue of his rebounding and defense two decades ago -- and by the vices he's indulged since -- Rodman made history in North Korea. That's enough to know, and anything more from him is too much.