There is currently a cacophony of domestic debate about Dennis Rodman’s meeting with Kim Jong Un. Many Americans express disgust at the thought of Rodman serving as an unofficial envoy or ambassador. You have read or heard the prevailing comments: “He should have stayed there!” “What a fool, didn’t even know PSY is from South Korea.” “He only did it for the money.”
Others believe that despite Rodman’s unorthodox approach to what is being called “basketball diplomacy”, the concept of a diplomatic channel being developed between Kim Jong Un and the U.S. government should be diligently pursued and not ignored.
I watched Dennis Rodman’s interview on ABC Sunday morning and then his performance on Celebrity Apprentice at night. Rodman was mainly defensive in his match-up with George Stephanopolous, who literally handed him a folder from Human Rights Watch. If you strictly examine the newsworthy content of Rodman’s delivery and not get distracted by his speaking or clothing style, then one can gain insight into how Kim Jong Un perceives himself, his spoken preference against war, and the desire for a telephone call from President Obama.
On the previously recorded Celebrity Apprentice, Rodman was the last contestant chosen when two captains picked their teams at the beginning of the show (the final choice was between Rodman and Gary Busey). Rodman was viewed as a loner by the other celebrities despite having participated as a key team player on NBA championship squads in both Detroit and Chicago. All he did was rebound, and Rodman’s Pistons and Bulls teammates overlooked his other eccentricities.
What if Michael Jordan, who was VICE’s first choice for a former Chicago Bull to go to Pyongyang, had been the one who delivered a message from Kim Jong Un? Would Jordan now be ridiculed like Rodman or taken much more seriously because of the distinct difference between their personalities? Regardless of which former Bulls basketball star is delivering the message from Kim Jong Un, the U.S. government needs to pay attention. It’s easy to dismiss Rodman as a clown, but he’s Kim Jong Un’s choice of messenger and not the State Department’s. Bill Richardson and Eric Schmidt didn’t get close to him, and neither did the “secret government envoys” revealed last month by Japan’s Asahi Shimbun.
Many pundits in the media note that the U.S. State Department stated there would be no debriefing of Rodman. However it should not be forgotten that Rodman’s delegation included the Harlem Globetrotters, who are scheduled to remain in North Korea until March 5. It would not be wise to schedule a debriefing with Rodman while the Americans he travelled with are still on “enemy soil”.
Here is why Rodman is such a MVP for the U.S. He has Kim Jong Un’s sincere respect and admiration. The links go back to the Rodman #91 Bulls jersey that Kim Jong Un’s brother is pictured wearing in Switzerland during the 90′s and the fact that Rodman’s co-star in the film “Double Team”, Jean Claude Van Damme, was Kim Jong Un’s favorite action movie star. This is not just trivia; it forms the basis for Kim Jong Un to give Rodman (one of his childhood idols) the distinct honor of being the first and sole American to speak with him. Only Michael Jordan could have pulled off a similar coup, and possibly Scottie Pippen because of the prominence of the Bulls basketball dynasty in Kim Jong Un’s mind. If this phenomena is simply viewed as Kim’s whim, then should we dismiss Rodman’s attempts at diplomacy? Rodman has said all along that he did not want to get involved in politics and emphasized basketball as the starting point in communications.
Thus this was the mistake of scheduling Rodman to be awkwardly interrogated Sunday morning by ABC’s Stephanopolous. The first TV interview should have been with someone like Piers Morgan, who is ideal due to his familiarity with Rodman on Celebrity Apprentice. I watch Piers regularly on CNN, and believe he easily would have gotten much more valuable information from Rodman in a longer interview. Why, for example, doesn’t Kim Jong Un call President Obama if he wants to talk to him. The answer, which Rodman tried to say was because Kim is too young, is more likely because such contact must originate from the U.S. side in order for Kim to save face with the regime he inherited. Rodman could have actually facilitated the phone call in Pyongyang using his own cell phone and serving as the middle man, giving President Obama the proverbial “3 a.m. White House phone call” with a ‘Guess what?’ and ‘Guess who!’ Many other fascinating nuances about Kim Jong Un could have been revealed with proper preparation.
Here’s the bottom line. As mentioned above, only Jordan and Pippen could have done what Rodman historically accomplished. The Worm’s word must be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s Kim’s word that still must be taken seriously. Like him or not, Rodman is still a valuable role player. It is a waste of time to criticize his statements about supporting the Kim family or demonize him for seemingly ignoring the obvious human rights issues. The United Nations has not been in a hurry with their reported investigations, so why push papers in front of Rodman?
The U.S. has nothing to lose by making the call, just to see what direction it takes. Begin with basketball, as Rodman said, followed by a chat about the Globetrotters and the autographed Jordan ball that was given to his father, and then see if Kim Jong Un himself initiates topics of diplomatic importance. Kim Jong Un, on the other hand, has much to lose if he initiates the call and then North Korea ends up making a single concession. Will this phone call happen? I accurately predicted the nuclear test on February 11 as well as the Kim-Rodman summit. President Obama might be waiting for the VICE crew and Harlem Globetrotters to leave North Korean airspace before getting the ball rolling, a prudent presidential move. Meanwhile Kim Jong Un is going to go on doing what he’s expected to do; military drills, anti-U.S. rhetoric and renovating the USS Pueblo. What we’re waiting for is the unexpected (again!), and that can be prompted by the action Rodman already rebounded and is now prepared to make a rare assist. SHOOT HOOPS, NOT TROOPS.