Former NBA superstar Dennis Rodman has become a cult of diplomatic personality. In the past few months, the colorful “bad boy” (a term from his days as a player on the Detroit Pistons) has turned into a new post-NBA career track – as the world’s basketball diplomat-in-chief – through two high profile trips to North Korea.
Here are 5 ways Dennis Rodman–the former NBA superstar–holds significant sway with North Korea and its unpredictable “X-factor” leader, Kim Jong-Un:
1. RODMAN KNOWS MORE ABOUT NORTH KOREAN LEADER KIM JONG-UN THAN JUST ABOUT ANYBODY IN THE WORLD: No single person has had such a unique “backstage pass” into the mind and thinking of Kim Jong-Un through his two visits to North Korea. Kim Jong-Un granted Rodman one of the most scarce seats in the world – a seat next to the young DPRK leader – which culminated into a seemingly win-win relationship. Rodman wants recognition and fame, which access to the highest levels of North Korea’s leadership can provide. Kim Jong-Un wants an apolitical trustworthy global iconic figure that can portray a more flattering and perhaps more nuanced image of him—especially since he represents one of the world’s most reclusive and unknown leaders in the world—despite having one of the world’s largest militaries and a potentially devastating nuclear arsenal.
2. RODMAN AND KIM JONG-UN HAVE SIGNIFICANT SHARED INTERESTS: At first blush, Rodman and Kim may seems universes apart. But underneath the superficialities, the two have significant shared interests. Rodman wants to be known as “the person who brought global basketball to North Korea.” Kim wants to be known as “a leader that is not as brutish as the world may portray him to be.”
3. SUCH SHARED INTERESTS CAN LEAD TO “BASKETBALL DIPLOMACY”: How can the two shared interests be converted into an actionable outcome? One is through basketball diplomacy—a form of cultural diplomacy leveraging soft power (defined as “getting others to want what you want” by Harvard professor, Joseph Nye).
4. BASKETBALL DIPLOMACY CAN LEAD TO REAL DIPLOMACY: Many have discounted the potential for basketball diplomacy leading to real diplomacy. One such argument is that North Korea is in effect “using” Rodman for its purposes. We disagree. The argument can be made that the alternatives—6-party talks, bilateral diplomacy, sanctions, etc.—have led to little or zero substantive results. So why not give it a try? Basketball diplomacy, as Rodman is envisioning it, is not a “state sponsored” event—not yet anyway. Surprisingly for many, the private sector and private citizens can also play a potentially important role in gaining trust between North Korea and the international community. Diplomats don’t have a monopoly on good faith diplomatic efforts, nor should they, in our view.
5. RODMAN’S CALL OUT TO OBAMA MAY BE A NEEDED “WAKE UP CALL”: Rodman’s statements upon his return to Beijing from Pyongyang referencing President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in less than flattering terms were admittedly not ideal. But given the lack of progress in U.S.-DPRK relations, such blunt analysis from a well-known figure such as Dennis Rodman may be the unlikely informal diplomatic figure that “sets the ball in motion.” Even if his efforts come to no resolution, how much different is this than with what has transpired thus far with the so-called experts?