Dennis Rodman plans to organize a basketball game between North Korea and the U.S. territory of Guam, the retired basketball star said Monday, as he seeks to personally mitigate a dangerous war of words between Washington and the isolated, nuclear-armed state.
“We thought, ‘This would be awesome!’” Rodman said in an interview in Beijing, his third stop on a “humanitarian tour” of Asia to promote peace between the U.S. and North Korea. “The people in Guam are all about it. They love it. You get a team from North Korea, get these guys from Pyongyang. Play it in Beijing.”
Guam’s national basketball team’s head coach, E.J. Calvo, said in an email that “this possible game would be a great opportunity.”
"We hope to inspire our young players and with something like this, the positive impact could be much greater," he wrote.
Rodman, who has visited North Korea five times since 2013, has in recent days visited Tokyo and Guam, a tiny Western Pacific island that contains two major U.S. military installations and has frequently borne the brunt of North Korean threats. He will not visit North Korea. (The U.S. banned American tourists from visiting the country in September, after the death of American student Otto Warmbier, who was released from North Korean custody in a coma.)
Rodman, 56, built a reputation over his 14-year NBA career as an unpredictable showman — he dyed his hair green, kicked a cameraman, head-butted a referee, and in 1996, while promoting his autobiography, donned a wedding dress and announced that he would marry himself. He is known as “the Worm.”
He has also, in recent years, emerged as arguably America’s most prominent advocate of citizen diplomacy with North Korea. On his first trip to Pyongyang in 2013, he hobnobbed with the country’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un; the two reportedly bonded over their love of basketball. He now calls Kim “the marshal,” and his “friend.” It’s unclear how many times he has met Kim. His last trip to the country was in June, when he presented the country’s sports minister with a copy of Trump’s book, “The Art of the Deal.”
“I think the effectiveness [of citizen diplomacy] is quite low in the macro sense, because the issues tend to be big issues — weapons tests, sanctions and so on,” said Simon Cockerell, the Beijing-based general manager of Koryo Tours who has been making regular trips to North Korea since 2002. Yet North Korean citizens are raised to believe that Americans are warlike and cruel, he said, and any engagement helps put a crack in the government’s propaganda.
“Dennis is the right guy for the job,” he said. “Because he doesn’t look like the cartoon Americans painted on the walls of schools — he doesn’t have claws for hands, or anything like that. He’s an unusual-looking dude, and he shows there’s more diversity on the outside than they’re willing to believe.”
North Korea’s threats against Guam — which have been going on for years — have escalated in recent months amid a war of words between Kim and President Trump. Kim personally called a missile test in August a “meaningful prelude” to containing Guam; in October, North Korean state media threatened that the country would fire a “salvo of missiles” into Guam’s surrounding waters.
Trump has repeatedly raised the possibility of war with North Korea, and once threatened to “totally destroy” the state. His top aides, previously seen as a stabilizing force, have also begun suggesting the possibility of war — last week, national security advisor H.R. McMaster said that the threat of war is "increasing every day, which means that we are in a race, really, we are in a race to be able to solve this problem.”
Yet the idea of a goodwill sports game between Guam and North Korea is not necessarily far-fetched. North Korea’s soccer team recently played Japan, South Korea, and China as part of the East Asian Cup tournament.
Rodman is possibly the highest-profile American public figure to have met both Kim and Trump, though he’s not known to have the ear of either. He was featured on Trump’s reality TV show “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2009 and 2013, and endorsed Trump’s campaign in July 2015. "Donald Trump has been a great friend for many years,” he tweeted.
Yet Rodman said Monday that he has not spoken with Trump in a while, and criticized the president for his frequent Twitter tirades against Kim. “I would love for Donald Trump to call me and say, ‘What is he like?’” Rodman said. “He’s never met him, he’s never talked with his people.… You can say [Kim] is crazy, but what has he done to you? What has he done in general?”
Rodman said that he would seek approval for his Guam-North Korea basketball game idea from North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York. “All they have to do is say yes,” he said. “And what can come out of that? A lot. We plan on making it happen.”
This weekend, he sought to raise morale on Guam, where North Korean threats have damaged the tourism industry.
“You’re safe no matter what. You’re safe no matter what. You’re safe no matter what,” he said in a press conference at the Hilton Guam Resort & Spa, according to the Guam-based Pacific News Center. “If you guys are concerned about if [Kim is] going to try to bomb you guys I’m telling you guys no. In my eyes, no.”
He wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of the trip’s sponsor — potcoin.com, a cannabis industry-focused cryptocurrency company — as well as pictures of Trump, Rodman and Kim in front of U.S. and North Korean flags.