The sight of Dennis Rodman, the eccentric basketball player, going to North Korea has annoyed a surprisingly large number of people. Rodman is accused of being cozy with a brutal and murderous regime and, if the critics are to be believed, his presence gives the young North Korean dictator a measure of credibility and probably even boosts his domestic support – as if the average North Korean had ever heard of Rodman before he began to frequent Pyongyang.
To a large extent such ideas might reflect a somewhat exaggerated view of America’s importance, quite typical of many in the United States today. Whatever those in the United States would like to believe, most of the world does not look to Washington as either a moral compass or a supreme force that bestows legitimacy on governments worldwide.
The average North Korean’s thoughts about Kim Jong Un will not be influenced much by the real or perceived attitude of the U.S. government or citizens of the United States toward him and his policies.
For North Koreans, the presence of a very exotic looking foreigner next to their leader will probably be a surprising sight. Rodman’s presence will not seriously influence their allegiance to their leadership. Ironically, Rodman’s activities are likely to have a mildly positive impact on their views of the outside world.
It is difficult to agree with optimists who sincerely claim that a less hostile and more forgiving international environment will make North Korean decision-makers reconsider their old and brutal ways. Less stick and more carrot is unlikely to make North Korea’s top leadership transform its country into a more benevolent dictatorship or liberal democracy. Pyongyang is well-aware of how risky reforms can be, and the leadership does not trust the outside world (regardless of how the outside world behaves).
“Rodman’s activities are likely to have a mildly positive impact on their views of the outside world”
Nonetheless, cultural exchanges with North Korea are very important. This is because exchanges influence the proverbial hearts and minds of North Koreans. For decades, North Koreans have been told that the outside world is destitute hell, characterized by extreme poverty and suffering. People inside the North are beginning to understand that they have been deceived, but it will do no harm if their suspicions are confirmed. The best way to do this is by exposing North Koreans to the outside world.
In this regard, Rodman’s presence in and of itself is important, as is his (and his entourage’s) contacts with North Korean officials and sportsmen. As my student Peter Ward has noted in soon-to-be-published research, for decades the oppression of black people within American society was a ubiquitous element in North Korean official narratives of America. Such ideas are difficult to sustain when the U.S. is headed by a black president, but Rodman’s visit is likely to make many North Koreans even more skeptical of official claims – and this is a good thing.
Of course, interactions between Rodman and North Korean society at large is likely to be very limited. In all probability, he will be allowed to talk to only a very small group of North Korean elite-level athletes. Furthermore, it seems that during these interactions both sides will try to avoid any sensitive topics. North Koreans are smart, though, and for many of them even small hints and impressions will say much.
One of my classmates in the Soviet Union back in the early 1980s was a semi-professional volleyball player. Somehow his team got a West German coach; this coach worked with them for just a few months and did not speak much Russian, but even so it left a lasting and deeply positive impression on my classmate. First of all, the personality of his coach made my classmate realize that Westerners were humans too, not much different from Russians. This was theoretically understood, but personal experience hammered it home. Second, the way the coach dressed, the gadgets he used and his general attitude spoke volumes about Western prosperity. Once again, few if any Russians at the time were still laboring under any illusions of alleged “Western poverty.” Yet personal experience drove this home.
One should also keep in mind that the impressions and ideas of a few dozen elite sportsmen may be more important than it might seem. By virtue of their elite status they have good connections within North Korean society, they are likely to share their impressions with many and their opinions carry some weight.
This is not to say that Rodman’s visit alone changes things. The results will of course be small, but as the saying goes, “water drops pierce stone.” The more drops the better, and to quote another proverb, “a 1,000-ri walk starts with the first step.”
“Knowledge of better alternatives to the current North Korean system will make many North Koreans consider the possibility of real change”
The likely result of such exchanges will be a partial decline in hostility toward the outside world, the weakening of the siege mentality that remains so vital to the perpetuation of the North Korean system. On top of that, knowledge of better alternatives to the current North Korean system will make many North Koreans consider the possibility of real change. This will create a significant pressure from below (or rather from lower reaches of the elite). People will start to say that “life cannot go on like this” and demands for change will start to appear. In other words, exchanges with the outside world bring knowledge of that outside world, and such knowledge brings with it desire for change.
We cannot say for sure where reforms and changes will take North Korea. One result may be the emergence of an authoritarian but economically efficient (and less aggressive) dictatorship. While not exactly the best option, this is still far better than the status quo – both for the North Korean people and their neighbours.
While Rodman’s activities are not going to change much, let us hope that many more Western athletes, scientists and artists will follow him to Pyongyang to participate in all kinds of exchanges and projects (big and small). Isolation will not change North Korea – only interaction with the outside world gives us some reason to hope.
Picture: NK News