How Eccentric Dennis Rodman Was Welcomed Home in Pyongyang

Basketball diplomacy follows an abandoned 2009 Eric Clapton visit, showing the important role of Kim family personal interests
February 28th, 2013
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Today Dennis Rodman made world news by meeting with the North Korean leader to watch a basketball game together, marking the first time an American visiting the DPRK had personally met with Kim Jong Un. After their meeting Rodman said, “Although relations between the two countries are regrettable, personally I am a friend of Marshal Kim Jong Un and the DPRK people.”

The visit to North Korea of basketball star Dennis Rodman may seem odd to outsiders, but the cross dressing, pierced and tattooed Hollywood celebrity has a very high-level fan club in Pyongyang. And it was no coincidence that Vice Media founder Shane Smith, whose organization helped plan the trip, said that Kim Jong Un’s love of basketball was why the trip was approved.


PYONGYANG’S BIGGEST BASKETBALL FANS?

Both the North Korean leader and his brother Kim Jong Chol are known to be ardent fans of  American basketball, with Kim Jong Un reported to have had posters of  basketball star Michael Jordan on his wall during his schooldays and his brother, Kim Jong Chol, once photographed in Switzerland wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey with Dennis Rodman’s number on it.

A photo of Kim Jong Chol in a Chicago Bulls shirt, Berne, Switzerland

The two brothers are also big fans of Belgian action movie star Jean Claude Van Damme, with whom Dennis Rodman co-starred in the Hollywood flick “Double Team”. A Swiss magazine reported in 2009, “Kim Jong Un especially liked American basketball star Michael Jordan and action film star Jean Claude Van Damme”.

While North Koreans are fed a hefty diet of anti-American propaganda, American basketball has long been officially sanctioned by the top tiers of North Korea’s leadership. Reports published in 2006 said that Kim Jong Il had regulation courts built at most of his palaces and a video library of practically every game Michael Jordan played for the Chicago Bulls. On the topic of the senior Kim’s enthusiasm for the sport, Tony Ronzone, director of basketball operations for the NBA’s Detroit Pistons, who made three trips to North Korea to conduct coaching clinics, said in 2006: “He’s a huge fan. He’s addicted to it.”

Cognizant of Kim Jong Il’s own interest in the sport, when U.S. secretary of state Madeline Albright visited Pyongyang in 2000 she personally brought an autographed basketball from Michael Jordan to give to the then ruler of North Korea. Just a year later documents obtained by The San Diego Union-Tribune showed that Michael Jordan was asked by Pyongyang to travel to North Korea to meet Kim Jong Il in a visit that due to be underwritten by South Korean electronics giant Samsung.


IT STARTED IN SWITZERLAND

Both of Kim Jong Il’s sons attended a Swiss boarding school in Berne in the mid 1990’s, where classmates have often spoken of two North Korean brothers obsessed with basketball. Kim Jong Un was reportedly there from the ages of 12 to 15 and brother Kim Jong Col until he was 17, where they were both officially enrolled as the sons of the chauffeur of the North Korean Embassy.  The International School in Bern (IBS) said that Kim Jong Chol was registered as “Pak Chol” and arrived there in a limousine in the fall of 1992, when he was a fourth grader.

Kim Jong Un, who was registered at the school under the name “Pak Un”, worshiped basketball players in the NBA, and one friend who visited his apartment recalls that Kim Jong Un had a room filled with basketball memorabilia. “He proudly showed off photographs of himself standing with Toni Kukoc of the Chicago Bulls and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers,” said a 2009 report by the South Korean Chosun Ilbo. “On at least one occasion, a car from the North Korean Embassy drove “Pak Un” (Kim Jong Un) to Paris to watch an NBA exhibition game.”

Brother Kim Jong Chol’s alleged school alias: Chol Pak

While Kim Jong Chol and his brother were basketball fanatics who loved the Chicago Bulls, his schoolmates recalled they were not that talented players, and in the end it was their bodyguard who made the school basketball team. But despite not showing any significant basketball prowess, “Pak Un” (Kim Jong Un) became a different person on the basketball court and was a “a fiercely competitive player,” said classmate Nikola Kovacevic. “He was very explosive. He could make things happen. He was the play-maker.”

Further illustrating his love of the American sport, Kim Jong Un was also said to have a significant collection of Nike sneakers. “We only dreamed about having such shoes. He was wearing them,” recalled Kovacevic, who guessed each pair of basketball shoes cost around US$200.

Kenji Fujimoto, who spent 13 years as the Kim family’s personal Japanese Sushi Chef, wrote in 2003 that both Kim Jong Un and his brother enjoyed playing basketball, but that Kim Jong Un would always analyze the game afterwards with teammates: “You should have passed the ball to this guy, you should have shot it then.”

Kim Jong Un at School in Berne, Switzerland


CULTURAL DIPLOMACY: FROM BASKETBALL TO ROCK AND ROLL

Neither of the basketball loving brothers were ever mentioned or photographed in official North Korean media until Kim Jong Un was unveiled and named a four star general in September 2010, to begin his succession to replace Kim Jong Il. But since the formal unveiling of Kim Jong Un as heir apparent, the whereabouts of brother Kim Jong Chol has been shrouded in secrecy.

However, occassional punctures to the carefully choreographed state propaganda have erupted from time to time in world media, showing another potential diplomatic entry to the North Korean leadership: through rock and roll.

Kim Jong Un’s Brother, Kim Jong Chol

Throughout the 2000’s the two Kims were seen as competitors to the throne and while for a number of years Kim Jong Chol was the rumored successor, younger brother Kim Jong Un was apparently favored by his father. Reflecting this sentiment, sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto once quoted Kim Jong Il as saying: ”The big one [Jong-chol] has a weak heart and is feminine, but the young one is manly.”

Feminine or not, Kim Chong Chol was nevertheless a big fan of rock and roll legend Eric Clapton, and in the summer of 2006 was photographed with a girlfriend attending an Eric Clapton concert in Germany. As a big fan of the British musician, Japan’s Fuji TV published footage showing him attending Clapton concerts in four different German cities. The pictures were confirmed by two American classmates at the Swiss school in Bern who said they were sure that the man in the footage was Kim Jong Chol.

According to a 2007 Wikileaks top-secret U.S. embassy cable, top North Korean officials campaigned for a concert by Eric Clapton to perform in Pyongyang as a way to build “good will” between the United States and Pyongyang. “Arranging an Eric Clapton concert in Pyongyang could also be useful, [the redacted intermediary] said, given Kim Jong Il’s second son’s devotion to the rock legend,” the May 2007 document begins. “As Kim Jong-Il’s second son Kim Jong Chol, is reported to be a great fan, the performance could be an opportunity to build good will.”

In 2008, the rock music diplomacy apparently began to take shape, and the North Korean Embassy in London officially invited Clapton to perform in Pyongyang in early 2009. But while the British music legend reportedly agreed to a concert to take place in 2009, it would later be aborted after North Korea conducted its second nuclear test.

When photographs appeared of Kim Jong Chol at the Clapton concert in Singapore in 2011, PJ Crowley, the  U.S. State Department spokesman, posted on Twitter,

Kim Jong Il’s son attended an #EricClapton concert in Singapore? Actually, the #DearLeader himself would benefit from getting out more often

He followed it by posting another Tweet that said,

Of course, there is nothing preventing #KimJongIl from opening up #NorthKorea so his people could enjoy #Clapton, and maybe get more to eat.

Full details of Dennis Rodman’s trip to North Korea will emerge in the coming weeks, with a Vice media TV documentary about the visit due to be aired on HBO sometime in April.  Whether Rodman’s trip will pave the way for a similar visit from Eric Clapton remains to be seen.

Picture by OPEN Sports

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About the Author

Nate Thayer

Nate Thayer is an award winning investigative journalist with 25 years of experience in Asia, specializing in conflict, intelligence, security, transnational crime. He has a noted expertise on Cambodia and a current focus on North Korea.

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