clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Dennis Rodman became the unofficial U.S. ambassador to North Korea

Here’s how we reached this point.

Dennis Rodman made the news rounds on Monday night as President Donald Trump held a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore. A teary Rodman — who traveled to Singapore during the summit — saw it as the culmination of his five years of work to bring the two countries together. Yes, you read that all correctly.

One of the NBA’s most notorious bad boys of the ‘90s and eventual reality television star somehow has become inextricably linked with the United States’ complex and consequential diplomatic relations with North Korea. And, of course, he occupied this improbable status while plugging a cryptocurrency for the cannabis industry.

So how did we get here?

It starts with Kim Jong Il’s love of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.

In 2006, the San Diego Union Tribune ran a story focusing on the former leader of North Korea and his obsessive love of basketball. Il, the late father of Kim Jong Un, reportedly had every game Michael Jordan played curated for him on video tapes, and would re-watch them frequently.

The United States government knew this appreciation for basketball was so deep that Secretary of State Madeline Albright took Il a basketball signed by Jordan as a gift during a diplomatic visit in 2000. A State Department official explained the gesture.

“We were looking for something that was a little more meaningful than a bottle of Scotch or a miniature Statue of Liberty or a Buffalo Bill book — something with more importance to him. He may have been initially surprised by it, but you could tell he was pleased. I don’t think he expected it. It was a very personal gesture, in a sense.

It showed him we went through some effort to get the signature. They realized it wasn’t just an ordinary ball.”

In 2001, roughly a year after Albright’s visit, Jordan was invited to North Korea to be the special guest of Kim Jong Il. Jordan declined. He would have been the first non-diplomat from the United States to meet the leader of North Korea.

Enter Dennis Rodman.

Twelve years after Jordan declined an invitation, North Korea’s love of basketball endured. There was a clear delineation inside the country that it was OK to love NBA basketball while hating the United States. In February 2013, Vice took Rodman to North Korea to run a series of basketball camps as part of a documentary series for HBO.

Those roots with the Bulls garnered attention. Rodman met with Kim Jong Un during the visit and they hit it off. Following the visit, Rodman said that Un had become “a friend for life.”

Dennis, the diplomat.

Rodman’s initial visit and apparent friendship with Un quickly made him one of the rare figures in the United States to have routine contact with the leader of North Korea. Rodman publicly slammed President Barack Obama, saying he wasn’t reaching out to North Korea enough or making the effort to get to know Kim Jong Un.

Rodman directly threw his hat in the diplomatic ring in late 2013 when he learned about the imprisonment of U.S. missionary Kenneth Bae, who was charged with trying to overthrow the North Korean government. He asked his friend to “do him a solid.”

Amid repeated visits, Rodman attempted to straddle the line between diplomat and friend. In early 2014, Rodman was slammed for claiming that Bae’s imprisonment was his own fault during an interview with CNN, a remark he would later apologize for and blame on alcohol.

“I take full responsibility for my actions. It had been a very stressful day. Some of my teammates were leaving because of pressure from their families and business associates. My dream of basketball diplomacy was quickly falling apart. I had been drinking. It’s not an excuse but by the time the interview happened I was upset. I was overwhelmed. It’s not an excuse, it’s just the truth.”

Bae was released in 2014, and credited Rodman’s attention as a contributing factor in his early release.

And now PotCoin?

Rodman’s involvement in North Korean politics relaxed following Bae’s release, but he remained critical of Obama for not visiting Kim Jong Un. As nuclear tensions escalated in 2017, Rodman announced he was traveling back to North Korea, this time sponsored by crytpocurrency “PotCoin” to “try and bridge the gap and bring peace and dialog between both nations.”

Rodman was unable to meet with Un during his visit, but did bring him a host of gifts, including a copy of Donald Trump’s book The Art of the Deal.

The Summit.

President Trump met with Kim Jong Un in Singapore for a conference on Monday, which led to Rodman appearing on TV showing his support not only for Trump, but PotCoin.

Rodman traveled to Singapore for the meeting on PotCoin’s dime, though it’s unclear if he met with either Trump or Un while in the country.

That’s how we got from Kim Jong Il’s love of NBA basketball to Rodman being a self-professed diplomat during a tense time of international conflict, all while ensuring PotCoin soared in value thanks to him schilling it on live TV.