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Dennis Rodman tests out ‘basketball diplomacy’ in North Korea

It’s a story so strange it could have been cobbled together through Mad Libs: Flamboyant basketball star Dennis Rodman and some of the showy Harlem Globetrotters arrived Tuesday in the isolated country of North Korea, in a filmed trip billed as “basketball diplomacy.”

Bringing the pierced and provocative Rodman into regimented North Korea is aimed at “finding common ground on the basketball court,” said Shane Smith, the founder of a Brooklyn-based media company, Vice, which is filming the unusual delegation for an upcoming HBO special.

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“These channels of cultural communication might appear untraditional, and perhaps they are, but we think it’s important just to keep the lines open,” Smith said in a statement Tuesday. “And if Washington isn’t going to send their Generals then we’ll send our Globetrotters.”

Fans will recognize that as a double-entendre, since the Washington Generals are the opposing team who exist solely to get defeated by the Globetrotters night after night.

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The towering “basketball diplomats” plan to stop by national monuments, visit an animation studio and run a basketball camp for North Korean children, according to Vice.

The company said it coordinated the weeklong trip with “DPRK representatives” (referring to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and hinted that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might even attend a scrimmage. The U.S. State Department had not been contacted about the trip, a senior administration official told the Associated Press.

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Rodman and his fellow basketball stars are the latest American figures to make a foray into the impoverished and repressive country known as the Hermit Kingdom, following in the footsteps of former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Google executive Eric Schmidt.

Whether such trips are a good idea is sharply debated. The State Department warned Schmidt and Robinson that their January visit would be “unhelpful,” sending the wrong signal to the country after a provocative December missile launch. Some feared the visit could be misunderstood as an official gesture by the United States.

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The Globetrotters’ trip comes at an even tenser time, weeks after North Korea defied world powers and triggered tightened sanctions by setting off its third nuclear test. The country continues to be excoriated over its grim human rights record of gulags and torture, and some experts question whether tourism merely legitimizes the regime.

Yet other scholars said the trip could be helpful at best and probably harmless at worst, allowing at least some North Koreans another rare glimpse of the outside world. Though even the most enthusiastic proponents say the filmed trip is unlikely to spur any immediate change, it could plant the seed for more communication and exchange in the future.

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“Purely a stick with no carrot is not a productive policy. It’s important to send both messages -– that the U.S. is not pleased with North Korea’s latest actions, but to leave the door open,” said Charles K. Armstrong, director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University.

“It also helps expose North Koreans to an image of the U.S. that is not the relentless negative one you see in official propaganda, showing them Americans are normal human beings -- although perhaps ‘normal human being’ doesn’t quite apply to Dennis Rodman,” he added.

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For North Korea, in turn, the “basketball diplomats” give it another chance to boast that Western celebrities see Pyongyang as an important place. “This is a calibrated message to the outside world that if diplomats don’t want to come to us, industry leaders will,” said Jae H. Ku, director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Feeding into that kind of North Korean propaganda and visiting its monuments helps “reinforce the personality cult,” North Korea scholar B.R. Myers wrote to the Washington Post, arguing that chances for real exchange are crimped by the fact that “all the tourists are talking to the same tiny bunch of hardened cadres, guides and spies.”

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“It is even worse when Americans succumb, as far too many do, to their guides’ pressure to bow to a monument or lay plastic flowers at one. To the groups of schoolchildren standing around this is a manifestation of American tribute or penance,” Myers told the Post.

Curious as the Globetrotters trip might seem, basketball is a rare shared pastime between Pyongyang and Washington, with late leader Kim Jong Il known to be an NBA fan.

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Rodman once played alongside Michael Jordan, a famous figure even in the cloistered country: A basketball signed by Jordan holds a prized place in a North Korean display of gifts from foreign leaders, proffered by then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright more than a decade ago. An astronomically tall North Korean basketball player, the 7-foot-9 Ri Myong Hun, reportedly dubbed himself “Michael” after the famed Chicago Bulls star.

An informal poll of North Koreans shows that the notoriously colorful and controversial Rodman is not as well known, the Associated Press reported Tuesday. Rodman appeared to be shelving his “bad boy” persona for the trip, showing up in sweatpants as he arrived Tuesday in Pyongyang and telling the news agency he didn’t want to stir up trouble.

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The real test of whether such trips make a difference is if more North Koreans venture outside the country as well, said Leon Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council. But Ku said there was probably little effect either way.

“This is not a regime that’s going to behave because we prevent CEOs or sports stars or actors from going,” Ku said. On the other hand, “if one hopes that somehow these exchanges will somehow foster better relations -- perhaps. But that will take decades.”

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