Happy Birthday, Dear Leader: Dennis Rodman, Kenneth Bae, and the Inevitable Failure of Basketball Diplomacy

Wade Boich

Throughout his basketball career and life, Dennis Rodman has inspired more than a few confused stares. His notoriety comes as much from his always-changing hairstyles as from his five NBA championship rings. Whether it was donning a wedding dress, or his strange-but-true time as a second tier professional wrestler, Rodman’s life in the public eye has always been something of a circus show. His bizarre persona and well-documented struggles with alcoholism almost inevitably led him to appearances on addiction based reality programs such as Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew and Sober House. Given this brief description of Rodman’s time in the public eye, it would seem obvious that he is neither a leading scholar in the field of international relations nor is he on President Obama’s shortlist of potential ambassadors. Indeed, Mr. Rodman will not find himself representing the Federal Government in an official capacity any time soon, yet in spite of all this, he has managed to find his way into international political discourse, and in about as dysfunctional a way as possible.

In early 2013, Rodman came to North Korea as a part of an event staged by Vice Media. During this trip, Rodman met with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Kim, it turns out, is quite a basketball fan. Like most international fans his age, he grew up idolizing the members of Rodman’s Bulls teams, largely due to Michael Jordan’s status as the NBA’s first truly international superstar. These circumstances have created one of the strangest friendships imaginable: NBA bad boy and noted cross dresser Dennis Rodman now declares his undying love for East Asian dictator and noted human rights violator Kim Jong Un.

From this friendship came Rodman’s idea of “basketball diplomacy,” ostensibly an attempt to break down barriers using the sport as common ground. With this concept of “basketball diplomacy” came Rodman’s plan to lead a group of former NBA players in an exhibition game against a North Korean squad on Kim’s birthday. Rodman himself has claimed his mission is apolitical, and that it is “not his place” to talk about political issues, so there is the temptation to write this friendship off as harmless, as a novelty or an interesting anecdote when discussing North Korea. The problem, however, is the North Korean government’s penchant for propaganda. If the North Korean government claimed that Kim Jong Il invented the hamburger, or managed eleven hole-in-one’s in a single round of golf, then imagine how they are spinning Rodman’s visits. In fact Rodman’s close relationship with Kim Jong Un has made it impossible for him to avoid political issues, as simply supporting the North Korean regime is a major political statement for an American citizen to make.

Of course Rodman recently made things a lot easier on North Korea’s state run media with one of the strangest segments of television in recent memory. A slurring, clearly intoxicated Rodman appeared to imply that he believed in the guilt of Kenneth Bae, an American citizen held by North Korean authorities. This was where the novelty of Rodman’s exploits ended. This was where “basketball diplomacy” became politics. This was the moment when Rodman truly damaged American interests abroad. Rodman is likely being used to demonstrate Americans’ sympathy for the Kim Jong Un regime.

To clarify, Kenneth Bae is an American citizen who, until the time of his arrest, ran a business based in China that offered tours of North Korea. In late 2012, while running one of these tours, Bae was arrested, with the North Korean government accusing him of committing a “crime against the state.” The vague charges against him include attempts to topple the government through “religious activities.”

The insinuation that Bae may be guilty is dangerous, as is Rodman’s almost sycophantic public support for Kim Jong Un. Expressing politically charged views such as these does not open doors in North Korea. It does not provide common ground for our two nations. What it does is legitimize the propaganda surrounding Bae’s arrest, further vilify the United States in the eyes of the North Korean people, and most importantly, diminish Bae’s chances of release from the labor camp where he is currently being held. It should be noted that since this interview, Rodman has issued a seemingly sincere apology, but the damage has been done. What he still does not understand is that his basketball diplomacy was doomed from the start. His well-documented friendship with Kim Jong Un meant that no matter what Rodman intended, his actions would have political ramifications. In the end, the enduring image of basketball diplomacy will likely be Rodman’s bizarre, Marilyn Monroe-esque performance of “happy birthday” for the Korean despot, one that I think we would all like to forget.


Image Credit: [http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/early-lead/files/2014/01/rodman2.jpg]