Dennis Rodman isn’t a diplomatic do-gooder, he’s a buffoon


It’s difficult to imagine a more ludicrous attempt at diplomacy than former basketball star Dennis Rodman’s current sojourn to North Korea. On his past trips (this is his fourth in less than a year) Rodman has referred to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as his “friend for life” and spent time with Kim’s family, calling him a “good dad” — as if the young dictator were just another misunderstood world leader and not the tyrannical ruler of an impoverished country who is capable of ordering his uncle’s execution.

But this trip outdoes his past ones. Rodman brought along several former NBA players to join him in a game against a North Korean squad. His countrymen have had to stand by stoically as Rodman serenaded 31-year-old Kim Jong Un with “Happy Birthday.” And before that, they had to stand by as Rodman inarticulately and defensively lashed out at CNN newsman Chris Cuomo during a TV interview, coming dangerously close to blaming imprisoned Korean American tour guide and evangelist Kenneth Bae for his own troubles, and likening his basketball diplomacy with North Korea to the putting aside of politics for the Olympic Games.

In this case, probably the only thing that everyone can come together on is that Rodman is a buffoon. Kim Jong Un may think much the same — even if he, like other millennials who came of age during the Chicago Bulls’ championship run of the mid-90s, is still obsessed with memories of Rodman in his playing days alongside Michael Jordan.


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Yet there is a place for cultural and athletic exchanges between open and closed countries of the world. Wouldn’t it be remarkable to get a glimpse of the hermetic North Korea if cameras were allowed to follow Westerners (not being held in prisons) on a real visit through the country? (Rodman should ask Kim to show him more than Pyongyang.)

Legitimate emissaries of openness and democracy have in the past made successful forays into repressive countries that rose above politics. The virtuoso American pianist Van Cliburn’s win at the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War endeared him as much to Russians as it did to the rest of the world.

The American long-distance open water swimmer Lynne Cox swam the Bering Strait in 1987, from an Alaskan island to a Russian island — each off-limits to the other — earning the praise of both U.S. and Soviet Union officials and some credit for helping ease Cold War tensions.

In both those cases, there was a kind of pureness of intention and lack of political maneuvering. But Rodman is neither Cliburn nor Cox. Unfortunately.



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