Commentary Magazine


Topic: Dennis Rodman

Was Dennis Rodman’s North Korea Diplomacy Wrong?

Dennis Rodman checked into an alcohol rehab center this past week, a source close to the former National Basketball Association star told CNN. The move caps off another bizarre North Korea trip in which Rodman played basketball for North Korea’s murderous ruler, Kim Jong-un, questioned whether imprisoned American pastor Kenneth Bae deserved his 15-year sentence in North Korea and, after apologizing for those remarks, headed off to go skiing in a North Korean resort.

Just about every commentator condemned Rodman’s North Korea spectacle, although Rodman himself and some of the former NBA stars who he brought to Pyongyang defended his “sporting diplomacy.” His agent Darren Prince defended the trip. “People forget Dennis is just an entertainer and retired NBA star… The fact remains that a basketball game was played in North Korea live in front of 14,000 people and hundreds of millions around the world viewed clips of the game.”

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Dennis Rodman checked into an alcohol rehab center this past week, a source close to the former National Basketball Association star told CNN. The move caps off another bizarre North Korea trip in which Rodman played basketball for North Korea’s murderous ruler, Kim Jong-un, questioned whether imprisoned American pastor Kenneth Bae deserved his 15-year sentence in North Korea and, after apologizing for those remarks, headed off to go skiing in a North Korean resort.

Just about every commentator condemned Rodman’s North Korea spectacle, although Rodman himself and some of the former NBA stars who he brought to Pyongyang defended his “sporting diplomacy.” His agent Darren Prince defended the trip. “People forget Dennis is just an entertainer and retired NBA star… The fact remains that a basketball game was played in North Korea live in front of 14,000 people and hundreds of millions around the world viewed clips of the game.”

Make no mistake: Rodman’s North Korea forays do not advance diplomacy; they retard it. They legitimize a barbaric regime, give it free press and propaganda points, and do nothing to break down barriers or create understandings. But, while many commentators are quick to condemn Rodman, they never question why Rodman is wrong but they assume so many other episodes of sporting diplomacy to be right. The State Department celebrates, for example, football friendlies and wrestling exhibitions with Iran and Cuba, but never explains why those events are any different than what Rodman does in Pyongyang.

Many diplomats point to the famous Ping-Pong exhibition with China to justify almost all sporting diplomacy, but there was context to that episode, and it was carefully choreographed by both sides against the backdrop of simultaneous initiatives. As Kissinger notes in his 1979 book White House Years, that iconic moment did not initiate relations but followed months of secret diplomacy. To credit “ping pong diplomacy” with the China breakthrough puts the cart before the horse.

Rodman was wrong. His antics in North Korea were clownish and an embarrassment to the United States. How sad it is, then, that they are not too different in result from much of the other sporting diplomacy which the State Department actually encourages. There is a time and a place for athletic exchanges, but seldom do they accomplish what American diplomats claim. Attending a soccer match might be fun, but it does not resolve the threat posed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, any more than Rodman reduces the menace posed by the dear leader.

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Vice Media’s Foolish North Korea Stunt

The New Criterion and PJ Media might have to retire their Walter Duranty Prize named after the infamous New York Times correspondent who whitewashed Joseph Stalin’s crimes during the 1930s. I think Dennis Rodman has earned a lifetime achievement award in this category, as Bethany’s post makes clear. It is hard, certainly, to top his fawning tribute to the current and past dictators of North Korea. As the AP reported:

Ending his unexpected round of basketball diplomacy in North Korea on Friday, ex-N.B.A. star Dennis Rodman called leader Kim Jong-un an “awesome guy” and said his father and grandfather were “great leaders.”….

“He’s proud, his country likes him — not like him, love him, love him,” Rodman said of Kim Jong-un. “Guess what, I love him. The guy’s really awesome.”

Those words are accompanied by pictures of Rodman yukking it up with Kim Jong-un at a basketball game involving North Koreans and some Harlem Globetrotters that ended in an improbable 110-110 tie.

I am guessing Rodman missed this Human Rights Watch report, which notes:

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The New Criterion and PJ Media might have to retire their Walter Duranty Prize named after the infamous New York Times correspondent who whitewashed Joseph Stalin’s crimes during the 1930s. I think Dennis Rodman has earned a lifetime achievement award in this category, as Bethany’s post makes clear. It is hard, certainly, to top his fawning tribute to the current and past dictators of North Korea. As the AP reported:

Ending his unexpected round of basketball diplomacy in North Korea on Friday, ex-N.B.A. star Dennis Rodman called leader Kim Jong-un an “awesome guy” and said his father and grandfather were “great leaders.”….

“He’s proud, his country likes him — not like him, love him, love him,” Rodman said of Kim Jong-un. “Guess what, I love him. The guy’s really awesome.”

Those words are accompanied by pictures of Rodman yukking it up with Kim Jong-un at a basketball game involving North Koreans and some Harlem Globetrotters that ended in an improbable 110-110 tie.

I am guessing Rodman missed this Human Rights Watch report, which notes:

Kim Jong-Un’s succession as North Korea’s supreme leader after the death of his father, Kim Jong-Il, has had no positive impact on the country’s dire human rights record. More than 200,000 North Koreans, including children, are imprisoned in camps where many perish from forced labor, inadequate food, and abuse by guards. Arbitrary arrest, lack of due process, and torture are pervasive problems. There is no independent media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom. Government policies have continually subjected North Koreans to food shortages and famine.

Admittedly, Rodman has no reputation to lose to here; this latest foray only reinforces the impression of an out-of-control wild man that basketball fans so vividly remember. But this trip was not just Rodman’s doing. It was underwritten by Vice Media, a documentary film production outfit that is under contract to HBO, a division of the giant Time Warner media empire.

One wonders what Time Warner Chairman and Chief Executive Jeff Bewkes thinks about the use of his shareholders’ money to fund a public-relations extravaganza on behalf of the worst regime on the planet? Did the filmmakers clear this little foray with Bewkes in advance, or was he as blindsided as the rest of the world?

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Rodman Inadvertantly Shines Light on North Korean Human Rights

For the first time in at least a decade, the world is talking about former basketball star Dennis Rodman. The former Chicago Bull, known for his “quirky” behavior while winning championships with the likes of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, made news this week with a short trip to North Korea with members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.

The news out of North Korea, both this month and in general, often revolves around its nuclear program and bellicose threats of violence against its neighbors and the United States. Rodman’s visit has stirred outrage thanks to his outspoken support of the country and its dictator Kim Jong-un. Upon leaving the country, Rodman promised that Kim would have a “friend for life” and declared that Kim Jong-un was an “awesome guy” and that his father and grandfather, other homicidal leaders of the country, were “great leaders.”

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For the first time in at least a decade, the world is talking about former basketball star Dennis Rodman. The former Chicago Bull, known for his “quirky” behavior while winning championships with the likes of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, made news this week with a short trip to North Korea with members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.

The news out of North Korea, both this month and in general, often revolves around its nuclear program and bellicose threats of violence against its neighbors and the United States. Rodman’s visit has stirred outrage thanks to his outspoken support of the country and its dictator Kim Jong-un. Upon leaving the country, Rodman promised that Kim would have a “friend for life” and declared that Kim Jong-un was an “awesome guy” and that his father and grandfather, other homicidal leaders of the country, were “great leaders.”

What could have prompted this effusiveness from Rodman? Despite the country’s total lack of infrastructure, freedom and food supply, enormous shows and basketball matches were put together for Rodman, the Harlem Globetrotters and their entourage. It’s not likely Rodman was aware of the dire situation for most North Koreans given that as he boarded his flight he tweeted about looking forward to meeting South Korean pop star Psy. Even as he was about to enter the country, Rodman couldn’t differentiate between the poverty-striken North and the affluent and capitalist South.

Many stories in the news media of the visit included reports of the human rights situation in the country. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer declared Rodman achieved a “diplomatic triumph,” however a report from his own network told a different story:

It was unclear whether Rodman, who is accompanied by Globetrotters Bull Bullard, Buckets Blakes and Moose Weekes, will be taken to North Korea’s countryside, where aid groups say malnutrition is rampant.

According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of thousands of people remain enslaved in prison camps, which are “notorious for horrific living conditions and abuse.”

It appears the North Koreans provided the group with “a feast” amidst a reported famine. Gawker, a site not exactly known for its moral compass, put together a fantastic “slideshow” of Rodman’s visit, with excited tweets from group members about their hosts interspersed with pictures of starving North Korean babies and children. TIME Magazine had an equally forceful post shedding light on the reality for the average North Koreans Rodman wasn’t allowed to meet. The human rights group Freedom House told BuzzFeed:

“History is cluttered with the examples of academics, philosophers, renowned writers, and eminent advocates of humane ideals who have aligned themselves with or apologized for the world’s most despicable tyrants,” said Arch Puddington, vice president of research. “Given this context, Dennis Rodman’s choice to pal around with a leader who oversees one massive, countrywide concentration camp is very much in the minor leagues of dictator worship.”

“At minimum, however, Rodman should ponder the fact that he is the product of a free society which allowed him to develop his athletic skills, earn millions of dollars, travel the world, and articulate his often very quirky opinions,” Puddington said. “Those freedoms, and especially the last one, are totally absent under the regime of the man he calls his ‘friend for life.’”

Thanks to Rodman’s visit, the world might actually be paying attention to human rights abuses in the country for the first time in a long time.

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