Illustration by NK NEWS illustrator Cammy Smithwick
NBA bad boy Dennis Rodman’s circus troupe delegation to North Korea was greeted by ridicule by most of the world. But does the Kim dynasty’s longtime basketball obsession hold the seed that will open North Korea to the world?
U.S. diplomatic insiders were dismissive of the Rodman meeting last week, describing it as “goofball diplomacy”. But basketball has played a very real role in the often bizarre, you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up backroom antics of U.S.-Pyongyang diplomatic negotiations for 25 years.
A love of the game shared by Kim Jong Il and his successor, current North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, has on occasion put basketball on the same bench as nuclear warfare in top level talks between the U.S. and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Rodman’s visit is just the latest wacky chapter in a diplomatic story that has seen the hoop dreams of Kim Jong Il become an unlikely pawn in nuclear negotiations with the U.S.
The Bulls fanatic from North Korea
In 1991, at a low point of relations between North Korea and the United States, Washington invited three North Koreans to a conference at George Washington University about peace on the Korean peninsula. At the time, the U.S. had no diplomatic relations with the DPRK, so the delegation from Pyongyang was attending in an “unofficial” capacity.
According to Gene Schmiel, then in charge of the Korea desk at the U.S. State Department, the “unofficial” North Korean delegation was led by a man in the Pyongyang “America department who spoke good English, was said to have an intelligence background, and close ties to the Dear Leader.”
That man was Ri Gun, a senior Pyongyang figure known to be close to Kim Jong Il and a lead member involved in every diplomatic exchange and nuclear and ballistic missile negotiations for the previous 25 years. Schmiel’s most vivid memory about the conference came when Gun revealed his passion for a very American pastime:
“After dinner, we went to their hotel room in Washington and [Gun] said ‘Oh My God! It’s eight o’clock! The Chicago Bulls are on TNT! Be quiet, we can talk during the commercials. Stop. No more talking! Michael [Jordan] and the Bulls are on TNT, and I’ve got to see if Scotty [Pippen] has gotten over his latest injury!’”
Ri Gun “then moved to the TV, turned it on and stared transfixed at the opening jump ball of the NBA basketball between the Chicago Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers,” Schmiel recalled in an interview this week. “Ri Gun headed the delegation and talked about an interest in basketball and Michael Jordan…Scotty Pippen this and Michael Jordan that, the triangle defense this, three points shots. They cared more about the NBA than I did”.
“We spent the rest of our time together that evening debating not high policy, but high quality basketball shooting and such arcana as whether the NBA should permit use of the zone defense. It was clear from our discussions that he had watched the NBA for many years.”
Gun was a fanatic for American basketball, particularly for the Chicago Bulls and the Detroit Pistons, the latter known as the NBA’s bad boys for their dirty play and habitual disregard for the rules of the game (of which Dennis Rodman was the poster-boy). Gun knew the nicknames of players, NBA history, and statistics. And he knew it because, Gun told Schmiel, “he got to watch games with the boss”. That ‘boss’ would have been the then North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.
Intrigued, Schmiel wrote a diplomatic memo noting the incident and suggesting it might be a useful tool in further diplomatic efforts. When the diplomat left the Korea desk for another post, he made sure to pass on some important advice to his successor about the best way to break the ice with North Koreans. “‘Just make sure,’ I told them, ‘you tell them how Michael Jordan and the Bulls are doing.’”
A Chip off the Block
“Kim Jong Il was a huge basketball fan,” ‘90s NBA talent scout Tony Ronzone recalled this week. “He was absolutely addicted to basketball.” Ronzone should know. He is considered U.S. professional basketball’s top international talent scout, having coached the Chinese National Team and worked as the Director of International Player Personnel for USA Basketball, where he scouted international talent during the Olympics.
“Kim Jong Il was a huge basketball fan. He was absolutely addicted to basketball. Kim Jong Un learned that from his father. It is unbelievable.” Ronzone said.
“You mentioned MJ (Michael Jordan) and they go crazy. They were very intrigued by the Bad Boys of the Detroit Pistons. They thought the Bad Boys were great. They asked me a lot of questions about the Bad Boys. They won’t talk about no electricity, no food, but they will talk anything about basketball.”
Kim Jong Un was realising a life-long dream when Rodman came to town last week. Having growing up watching NBA matches with his old man, Jong Un’s interest in basketball became a full-blown obsession after leaving Pyongyang to attend boarding school in Switzerland between 1996 and 2001.
Schoolmates at Berne International School recalled Kim Jong Un and his older brother were avid Bulls fans. The future dictator had a room filled with NBA memorabilia and “spent hours doing meticulous pencil drawings” of Michael Jordan.
In 1997, the North Korean Embassy drove Kim Jong Un by limousine to Paris to watch the Chicago Bulls play an exhibition match against the Greek national team. The young Kim saw the team during their golden era: the 1995-98 Bulls won three national championships with an all-star line-up that included Jordan, Rodman and Toni Kukoc.
After the match, Jong Un showed off photographs of himself standing with Kukoc to classmates. Later, he had the chance to meet Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant.
The World’s Tallest Man and North Korea’s NBA play
While young Jong Un was getting happy snaps with America’s most famous ballers, his father was using basketball to make a serious diplomatic play, at an extremely tense time when Washington was trying to stifle Pyongyang’s attempts to build a nuclear bomb.
In 1997, North Korea laid claimed to the world’s tallest man, Ri Myung Hun, listed in the Guinness book of world records as measuring seven foot nine inches. Kim Jong Il had a dream: he wanted Ri to play in the NBA.
His plan was for Ri to become an international ambassador for North Korea and maybe even thaw relations with Washington.
“General Kim Jong Il wants to see me play in the U.S.,” Ri told CNN in 1998. “I thought if I could play in the NBA, it would contribute to friendly relations between my country and the U.S.”
Tony Ronzone, then scouting for the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) and the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, wanted to see Ri Myung Hun. He had heard tell of the North Korean center’s incredible size and extraordinary court prowess.
During 1997 and 1998, Ronzone made three trips to Pyongyang, following a North Korean delegation being sent to FIBA offices in Germany to ask Ronzone to come to Pyongyang and help train their basketball team. During Ronzone’s basketball clinics with the North Korean national team, Kim Jong Il personally joined a 10,000 strong crowd to observe from the stands. 300 North Korean basketball coaches converged in Pyongyang, on the orders of Kim Jong Il, to attend Ronzone’s training clinics.
But Ronzone’s interest in training the seven foot nine Ri was dashed because it was illegal for Americans to do business with North Korea under the U.S.’s Trading with the Enemy Act. Undeterred, Pyongyang engineered the creation of a Canadian sports agency and arranged for Ri to go to Ottawa to train under legendary basketball coach Jack Donohue.
Through the North Korean embassy at the United Nations, Pyongyang teamed up with a Cleveland lawyer and aspiring sports agent, Michael Coyne, who created a scheme to bring Michael Ri to Canada to avoid violating the Trading With The Enemy Act which forbid U.S. citizens or companies from doing business with North Korea. Coyne was the liaison between North Korea and the U.S. government to get Ri to play in the NBA.
Bronx born legendary basketball coach Jack Donohue, who was the mentor for Kareem Abdul Jabbar, held dual Canadian citizenship, and was hired to put Ri through intensive training in Ottawa. Donohue met the giant Ri – a towering, 280 pound North Korean in Size 23 shoes – in April 1997. He had a brief to train the North Korean athlete during the summer months in preparation for NBA try-outs in September. Upon arrival, Ri promptly changed his name to Michael.
Michael Ri arrived in Ottawa from Beijing with a three man entourage. The head of the delegation “John Kim”, who communicated with the North Korean embassy in New York every night “and spoke perfect English”, served as the “translator”; Ri’s purported coach, “coachie, who knew nothing about basketball,” said Coyne; and “Carl” who was described as Ri’s “fitness trainer, but in fact was his bodyguard.” “Carl was a very bad dude, an assassin, an enforcer,” Coyne explained.
“No one was ever really sure whether Carl’s job was to protect Michael from the evils of Western civilization or to ensure that Michael would not succumb to the temptation of defecting, but he never let Michael out of his sight,” said Michael Hickey, a Canadian hired as one of the coaches to train Ri to prepare for the NBA draft who would eventually go on to write a biography on Donahue called Dream Big Dreams, which includes a chapter on Michael Ri’s Canadian odysseyto play in the NBA
Tom McLaughlin, a college basketball coach who went to Canada to assess Ri’s NBA prospects, remembers Carl and Ri’s other bodyguards as “scary dudes”. “Jack Donahue said, ‘You see those two little guys. Be careful. They will kill you in a second’,” McLaughlin recalls.
Yet McLaughlin was awed when he saw the North Korean Ri play. “His size was just incredible. He was seven foot nine and his wingspan was at least nine feet. He spread his arms and it would cover the court. He would take one step and be on the other side of the court. He could hold the ball above the rim without jumping, without his feet leaving the ground. How many guys can do that? I had never seen anybody before who could.”
Ri’s talent was obvious. He was “scouted by every team in the NBA for 8 months,” Ri’s agent Michael Coyne remembers.
Numerous problems arose promptly. Ri was so big he couldn’t fit in a normal car, and the team arranged for a local car dealership to donate a van of which all the back seats were removed so Ri could be transported back and forth from the gym. Additional mattresses were purchased and arranged across his bedroom so he could fit. After Ri complained he was having sleeping troubles, his Canadian handlers discovered he had placed the box springs on top of the mattresses. And it was weeks before Size 23 shoes could be found to replace the old shoes he brought from Korea.
But the biggest crisis started almost immediately when “Coachee”, as the Canadian trainers had dubbed Ri’s North Korean coach, became increasingly ill and bedridden. After several Canadian doctors were unable to cure him, Donahue decided the only option was to send him back to North Korea. The coach did not go without resistance, as North Korea was undergoing a famine at the time that killed nearly a million people.
The entire North Korean delegation and his American and Canadian trainers accompanied him to the Ottawa airport, but “when they tried to escort him on to the plane he refused to go, grabbing on to handrails on the door of the plane and yelling in Korean, scaring both the passengers and the crew,” said one of Ri’s coaches and author Michael Hickey. “Attempts to quiet him and remove his grip on the handrails proved fruitless and just elicited more screams that brought both the airport security and Royal Canadian Mounted Police,” he said.
Worried that the public spectacle could threaten the entire North Korean delegation’s visa status, Donahue and his crew brought the coach back to their rented condominium in Ottawa. “I never realized how strong he was until I tried to get his hands off the plane door,”
Donohue said afterwards, “He didn’t want go back to Korea. We are lucky we didn’t get arrested.” Air Canada said they would not allow a repeat of the drama, so the American and Canadian basketball trainers drugged him with sedatives to make him sleep as they accompanied him on a flight from Ottawa to Vancouver where he spent the night, before sedating him again before he boarded the flight to Beijing.
In the meantime, the U.S. government was playing a rough game of diplomat hardball. “The treasury department was monitoring everything. We had to set up a Canadian company to avoid violating the Trading With the Enemy Act,” Michael Coyne, the 7-9 Ri’s American agent and liaison with the North Korean government said in an interview Friday from his Ohio home.
“We tried to get an Office of Foreign Assets Control license from Treasury,” said Coyne. “The Treasury guys just couldn’t figure us out.“What are you doing? Who are you? You are a f—ing lawyer in Cleveland?” By then, Coyne had brought Ri through contacts at the North Korean mission to the UN in NYC to Canada, where he was “scouted by every team in the NBA for 8 months. We even had Michael Ri fast tracked to get Canadian citizenship.”
“The North Koreans wanted Ri in the NBA to make their people seem more normal as a diplomatic gesture, and Michael was the perfect man to do that. He was a very nice, very normal guy, who had a lot of talent and charm.” He would have been the first Asian player in the NBA.
In September 1998, CNN interviewed Ri who was now back in Pyongyang, a casualty of the Cold War between North Korea and the United States. “General Kim Jong Il wants to see me play in the U.S.,” said Michael Ri. “I thought if I could play in the NBA, it would contribute to friendly relations between my country and the U.S. But my efforts have had the opposite effect. The State Department waited for six months, and then said no. They wanted to use me for political purposes. So I just gave up.”
“I’m a big man. I want to test my ability. I am not interested in money or politics. As a sportsman, I just want to try. Thanks to Kim Jong Il, I also have a good life here, even without an NBA contract,” said Ri. “Still, I am a top class athlete. I want to play in the NBA.”
Fouled: A wasted opportunity for peace?
But getting a North Korean inside the NBA was never going to go smoothly. Behind the scenes, Ri’s chances of NBA stardom were being nixed at every turn by the U.S. Government: even with the backing of Nike. Ri managed to score an endorsement deal with Nike in May 1998. At the time, Nike manufactured basketball shoes in North Korea, and had been lobbying the State Department on Ri’s behalf, Coyne said.
However, a sponsorship deal with a South Korean car giant Hyundai for a half million dollars was canned by the South Korean government in 1998. And the U.S. Government had no intention of letting Ri pull on an NBA singlet, no matter how good he was.
Coyne arranged to get Michael Ri fast tracked for getting Canadian citizenship, but Eric Johns, the Treasury Department official in charge of enforcing the Trading With the Enemy Act, told Coyne in 1998: “I don’t care if you put stripes on him and call him a zebra. We will not let him play in the NBA.”
In December of 1997, the U.S. and North Korea met in Geneva for negotiations over missile and nuclear issues. According to participants in the four party talks, which also included South Korea and China, the U.S. used the issue of Ri being allowed to play in the NBA as a bargaining chip for the weapons proliferation negotiations.
“Ri’s name came up as a bargaining chip in the Geneva talks. The North Koreans went ballistic,” said Coyne, Ri’s agent. “That was the end of it. Kim Jong Il pulled him back from Canada.”
Ri was crushed by his genuine talent being taken advantage of for “political purposes”, he told CNN after returning to Pyongyang. “I am not interested in money or politics. As a sportsman, I just want to try. I am a top class athlete. I want to play in the NBA.”
Ri’s coach, Jack Donohue, was also saddened by the high-level machinations that doomed Ri’s promising future in world sport. “Once Michael was ready for the big leagues he was forced to return to his homeland,” Donohue said at the time.
On December 11, 1997, three days after the Geneva meeting, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth said the talks “successfully inaugurated the negotiating process to achieve a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
But the North Korean side was not convinced and Pyongyang’s media announced “avoiding addressing the heart of the matter by the Americans and South Koreans and seeking to disperse the focus of discussion would leave its solution an elusive goal,” in reference to the U.S. placing the possibility of Michael Ri playing in the NBA on the agenda as a bargaining chip for nuclear and missile negotiations.
After 8 months in Canada, Ri’s North Korean handlers suggested they needed to go back to Pyongyang “for a vacation,” said Ri’s coach and author Michael Hickey.
“Once Michael was ready for the big leagues he was forced to return to his homeland,” said Ri’s head coach, Jack Donahue. “When we were working with him, about half the teams in the NBA scouted him and there were two or three teams who would have signed him right away,” but couldn’t, “because of U.S. State Department rules on North Koreans.”
A few years later, Robert Carlin, a key U.S. government North Korean negotiator, admitted the U.S. should have played the Ri issue better.
“We did not handle it as wisely as we could have,” Carlin said. “This was a time when they were really trying to improve relations with the United States. I think they wanted to show the American people that this enmity and hostility was thawing because one of their Koreans was playing amongst the Americans.”
Perhaps in recognition of this, in 2000 the State Department relented and allowed Ri permission to play in the NBA. But by then, Kim Jong Il was so angry over the episode he refused. The government’s media mouthpieces portrayed Ri as also having abandoned his NBA dreams.
“It’s my honor to play games in the bosom of the general,” Michael Ri was quoted as saying at the time. “Then why do I need to go somewhere else to play?”
NK basketball diplomacy: 2000 to the present
In October 2000, then Secretary of State Madeline Albright traveled to Pyongyang in the highest-level U.S. visit ever to the country. Albright, after two days of talks, presented the 5-foot-3 Kim Jong Il a gift – a NBA basketball autographed by Michael Jordan. Bob Carlin, who was with Albright on the Pyongyang trip and for three decades a top North Korea analyst for the CIA and State Department, said “We were looking for something that was a little more meaningful than a bottle of scotch or a miniature Statue of Liberty– something with more importance to him. You could tell he was pleased. I don’t think he expected it. It was a very personal gesture, in a sense. It showed him we went through some effort to get the signature. They realized it wasn’t just an ordinary ball.”
The ball resides in a hallowed museum of gifts to the countries leaders, alongside those from Mao, Stalin, and a host of other dictators. A recent visitor in 2012 to the museum said the North Korean tour guide said, referring to Kim Jong Un, “When the general plays with that ball, it proves that he controls the whole world in his hands.”
In 2001, North Korea formally invited Michael Jordan to visit Pyongyang, according to documents obtained by the San Diego Union Tribune in 2006, but Jordan declined. When former presidential candidate and long time North Korea negotiator Bill Richardson visited Pyongyang in January 2013, he said he was asked by North Korean officials to persuade Michael Jordan to visit. Jordan was also asked to accompany Rodman’s visit last week, but again declined.
At the state run propaganda company, which produces all the art work and statues promoting the regime, the Mansudae Art Studio now displays a painting of Michael Jordan alongside portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
In 2001 Kim Jong Il mandated a ‘Grow Taller’ movement, calling for basketball nets in “every government agency, enterprise, and factory and army unit.” Because of malnutrition, United Nations figures show North Koreans are 4-6 inches shorter than South Koreans. It was reported at the time that “Youth League organizations and young people have been energetically raising up the ‘basketball wave.’ Courts have been set up in schools, factories and on farms, and everywhere basketball is becoming more popular. In senior middle schools, basketball skills are being taught to all levels, starting in low grades all the way to high grades. Basketball matches have been formalized, and all are thriving off basketball.”
Former U.S.-Korean government insiders are dismissive of the Rodman visit’s diplomatic merit, with one former senior U.S. diplomat noting “the idea that the new North Korean leader chose Dennis Rodman as his first American to meet is odd almost to the point of bizarreness”.
And yet basketball seems to provide one of the United States’ few windows into the North Korean regime. This was highlighted by a comment made by U.S. presidential candidate Sen. Rick Santorum last year, when he said: “Kim [Jong Il] doesn’t want to die. He wants to watch NBA basketball.”
Kim Jong Un’s Rodman love-in offers the fantastical possibility the dictator wants to open up North Korea to the world so he can live out his hoop dreams for real.
“I know Dennis. He is out there. Dennis is hanging out trying to make money. It happens after years of being a top player making a lot of money and they reach a certain age”, said the NBA talent evaluator McLaughlin. “Do I think it was a good thing he went to North Korea? Well he met with the North Korean leader. That’s more than anyone else has done. But the hairdo and the nose rings and all. It all seems more than a little strange.”
“Some people in State were pushing for Michael Ri, but frankly, this Rodman circus makes me seriously worried about the judgment of the new regime, particularly that of Kim Jong-un. The leader of a nominally communist country spends a large amount of money while his people are starving on buying dolphin aquariums, building new amusement parks for the elite, Mickey Mouse performances, and bringing the nose pierced Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters and calling it a diplomatic effort. Who is this suppose to appeal to? If I was Kim Jong Un, I would be worried to make happy the people with the guns. I can’t imagine this is impressing the North Korean generals,” said a now retired U.S. State department senior North Korea official.
“Kim Jong-un seems to be increasingly young, inexperienced, spoiled, selfish, has bad judgment and not very bright. It looks certainly like he is spoiled and narcissistic. Just another Princeling, telling Dennis Rodman he wants better relations with the US while blowing up nuclear explosions. It is even more stuff that gives the impression he should be treated like a Baby Huey.”
He added: “If there is more to this than Kim Jong Un using his country as a narcissistic playground, it isn’t obvious. I can tell you this is not going to do anything for the Obama administration. Most people in the Obama administration have written them off. When Obama came to power, the first thing he did was publicly say he was willing to start with a clean slate and talk with North Korea. The first thing the North Korean’s did was fire off several banned missiles and explode a nuclear device in 2009. Then they explode another nuke and a few weeks later invite Dennis Rodman to promote better relations?”
As for Gene Schmiel, the U.S. State Department official who first identified North Korea’s passion for basketball back in 1991, he recalled “The North Korean’s had a good sense of humor. Ri Gun said ‘The last time I was here I got a picture with me and George Bush’ and pulled out a photo he had of him standing next to a cardboard cutout of then President Bush Senior in front of the White House.”
Relations between the two countries have not seemed to evolve beyond that level since then.
As another former U.S. diplomat speculated last week: “Perhaps, as he sees his country’s economy continues to deteriorate – and as the burden of maintaining a highly armed society that is now developing long-range missiles with nuclear warheads grows further – Kim Jong Un will decide to invite people to Pyongyang who can really help lead the country out of the darkness and into the community of nations.”