(The questions below were based in part on an interview with a local South Korean broadcaster)
1) What is the significance of Dennis Rodman’s visit to North Korea?
From a political standpoint, Rodman’s visit to North Korea – accompanied by the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team and executives from VICE media group (a news and media group set to debut a related show on HBO in April 2013) – was significant in terms of Kim Jong-Un’s efforts to turn the one-off basketball event into a global diplomatic event that could appeal to the masses, and as a result, serve as a highly calibrated opportunity to continue its push for legitimacy (from the international community) and sympathy (at the grassroots level from average citizens in and beyond Asia).
2) Why did Kim Jung Un allow Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters into Pyongyang?
Our view is that the DPRK leader took a creative low risk potentially high reward strategy of using the meeting between the highly visible American basketball envoy and North Korean officials (including Kim Jong Un himself) into a shuttle basketball diplomacy forum–by openly declaring that (1) the North Korean leader not want “to do war” with the United States; and (2) Kim Jong Un’s public declaration for President Obama: to “call him [Kim Jong Un].”
What was notable and fairly striking was that such comments were made so public to such a sports cult of personality like Dennis Rodman – who is both famous and infamous within and beyond the basketball court – instead of through more discrete private diplomatic channels. The bottom line is that the highly covered and highly unlikely meeting of basketball enthusiasts from the U.S. and DPRK was a global public platform for Kim Jong Un to reach out to people around the world at the grass roots level – through the medium of basketball – to place pressure on the international community to perhaps rethink the way that people view the closed Stalinist state (as perhaps not so closed after all).
Such event viewed in context with the DPRK’s past recent acts of increased communication with the international community such as by (1) allowing global media outlets to report on the failed missile launch in early 2012; (2) increased and more rapid reporting of both positive and negative local news events (e.g., failed and successful missile launch attempts in 2012); (3) greater openness in the frequency and range of prominent foreign dignitaries (eg, from Bill Clinton to Eric Schmidt); and (4) increased use of mobile phones by both DPRK citizens (through Orascom/Koryolink, a 3G joint venture service) as well as foreigners being allowed to use social media and the internet (including Google) while visiting and reporting on North Korea, which led to the first tweet from the so-called Hermit Kingdom, represents a less than subtle message from Kim Jong Un to the outside world that he views the opening of the DPRK as inevitable and perhaps even favorable.
Not one event is a game changer, but the culmination of such emerging pattern of openness is certainly deserving of serious attention and analysis.
3) Rodman and Kim Jong Un watched a basketball game together and sometimes talked without a translator. The former NBA star was also invited to Kim Jong Un’s palace for a lavish dinner party. Why did the young leader meet and spend significant time with Rodman, but not Google’s Eric Schmidt?
Kim Jong Un’s decision to meet former NBA superstar Dennis Rodman and not Google’s Eric Schmidt (earlier in January) was probably based on comfort level and cost-benefit analysis by the DPRK leadership. In short, meeting with Dennis Rodman provides relatively more potential upside relative to its possible downsides. Rodman is not known for his diplomacy, which in part, led to Rodman’s positive comments towards Kim Jong Un during his visit as a “friend for life” and “good guy.” Of course, the young Kim Jong Un’s affinity for the Chicago Bulls team (that won six national championships in the 1990s), and in particular, NBA superstar Michael Jordan is well known. So along with the political upsides of the meeting, Kim Jong Un also had the opportunity to directly communicate with one of his coveted sports heroes. On the other hand, Eric Schmidt would represent more possible downside than upside since Schmidt and Google are vocal proponents of free, open, and transparent access to information and the internet–things that are not plainly existent in North Korea today.
4) Rodman’s visit has attracted a lot of attention worldwide. What did Rodman gain from the trip?
Rodman gains from added publicity. As the mantra goes, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” And certainly, a high profile visit to North Korea – perhaps the most closed state on earth – catapulted Rodman into the top headlines of news affiliates around the world. Vice, the company that organized and sponsored the trip, also benefits for the same reason–attention and publicity, which can easily be monetized and highly beneficial for their new eight-part TV upcoming series debuting next month in April. As one part of the quid pro quo for the trip, VICE agreed to donate basketball backboards and scoreboards to North Korea, which is actually an effective demonstration of “soft power” and “cultural diplomacy,” ironically made by an upstart magazine rather than at the state level.
5) The visit came only about two weeks after North Korea’s third nuclear test. Does the trip signify a thawing of US-DPRK relations?
In short, we believe that the event is an olive branch from the DPRK generally, and Kim Jong Un, specifically, to the U.S., generally, and President Obama (a huge basketball fan and former basketball player), specifically. Kim believes that the shared interest in U.S.-style basketball can serve as the foundation from which to develop stronger (or at the very least, less antagonistic) relations between the U.S. and North Korea. Also note that the teams were not set up in a “U.S. v. DPRK” team competition, but rather, blended teams in which each team had players from both countries, which culminated into a 110-110 tied score (whether the tied score was pre-orchestrated is another issue). Little downside and even some possible upside could be created by perhaps mirroring the basketball diplomacy efforts with a similar basketball game in the U.S. (possibly in Washington D.C.).
In a time of heightened tensions in and around the Korean peninsula, perhaps it is one of America’s most iconic sports, basketball, that can help bring the U.S. and DPRK closer together to forge a diplomatic solution to the ongoing impasse.
Of course, as many commentators have already noted, North Korea has one of the most dire human rights conditions on the planet. So, obviously, the “sports sunshine policy” analysis here should not be construed to condone or find acceptable the conditions that exist and have existed in the DPRK and its citizens. Also, Dennis Rodman’s role and visit to the DPRK is in no way one as a state-appointed diplomat or ambassador. Rather, this research note’s takeaway is that the sports sunshine policy option between the U.S. and DPRK should be one that could be explored as a way to break the half-century impasse.
Below is an ABC news clip related to Dennis Rodman’s recent trip to North Korea.