Dennis Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters’ visit to North Korea speaks of a new kind of diplomacy.
Rodman’s (Un)political diplomacy
This month ex Chicago Bulls basketball player Dennis Rodman and four members of the Harlem Globetrotters were welcomed by North Korean dictator Kim Jun Un, to the surreal isolation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK), capital Pyongyang for a site-seeing tour and demonstration basketball game. Rodman and Kim Jong Un, an avid basketball fan, apparently bonded over a lavish meal, with the eccentric American returning claiming Un his new ‘friend’.
Best of friends Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong-Un share a manly hug (Reuters/KCNA)
The trip was organised by online magazine VICE in partnership with HBO for a documentary in what they hope will be a weird and wonderful glimpse into life in the world’s most isolated country. What was initially meant to be an innocent enough sojourn into the bazaar though quickly descended into a diplomatic hot potato as Rodman ruffled feathers in the ranks of America’s diplomatic corps. On ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Rodman said: “The kid [Kim Jun Un] is only 28 years old… He’s not his dad. He’s not his grandfather.”
Rodman, who is thought to be the only US citizen to meet with the North Korean leader since the death of his father in 2011 and his accession to power said he thought the young Un was a respected, balanced individual who has been groomed for absolute power. “There is nobody at the CIA who can tell you more personally about Kim Jong-Un than Dennis Rodman, and that in itself is scary,” said former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Steve Ganyard to ABC, shortly after the news broke last month.
Kim Jong-Un, Dennis Rodman and first lady RI Sol-Ju watch North Korean basketball players at an exhibition game in Pyongyang. (Reuters/KCNA)
The notoriously paranoid state of North Korea opening up to American culture through the sports medium of basketball would normally be celebrated had it not been for the dictator’s flout international law by testing nuclear weapons last month and the maverick state’s decision to abandon its existing 1953 ceasefire agreement with South Korea as of the 11th of March. The US is leading a push to impose sanctions on North Korea, as well as continuing with joint military exercises with South Korea adding fuel to the fire.
While the official diplomatic channels a rattling sabres the quieter cultural diplomacy of basketball reache3s out across borders and divides. Rodman himself has always been maverick and perhaps identifies with what he sees as a misunderstood leader. Dennis Rodman is not concerned with protocol or standoffs; he’s more interested in human relations. He seems to think that there is an opportunity there to make connections and suggests the US President and the North Korean despot could use the game as a way to connect. “[Kim Jong-Un] loves basketball. Obama loves basketball. Let’s start there.”
Rodman signs autographs for fans (AP)
It’s perhaps a simplistic view and one more reminiscent of the ‘Peace and Love’ ethos of the 60’s, but it’s one that appeals to many ordinary citizens and which has grown legs in today’s age of greater social networked awareness. As people gain the ability to directly connect with each other across borders and cultural divides, albeit nota cross the great firewall of China and North Korea, there is again a will to foster a grassroots diplomacy, one that connects people and not regimes.
Not everyone sees it that way though. “You know what?”, US Secretary of State John Kerry told NBC, “Dennis Rodman was a great basketball player, and as a diplomat, he was a great basketball player. And that’s where we’ll leave it.”
Vice Magazine, Associated Press, Reuters, KCNA,
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On World Press Freedom Day, a photo reportage from Parallelozero on the South and North Korea – two sides of the one coin.
Today is Press Freedom Day and while the Internet change he game of what its possible to publish, but there are still countries that do not enjoy a free press