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North Korea Experts: Rodman Trip Could Prove Useful

North Korea Experts: Rodman Trip Could Prove Useful

By Scott Conroy - March 5, 2013

As one of the so-called “Bad Boys” of the Detroit Pistons, Dennis Rodman’s physical style of play helped his team win back-to-back NBA championships, though his sharp elbows on and off the court earned him plenty of critics along the way.

But the heat Rodman took during his basketball career was nothing compared to the collective scolding he faced last week upon returning from North Korea, where he served as an unofficial envoy along with members of the Harlem Globetrotters and staff from Vice magazine.

Though Rodman has faced nearly universal criticism over his supportive comments about the Stalinist dictator, North Korea scholars have quietly wondered whether the ostentatious former hoops star might have initiated a form of “basketball diplomacy” that could pay real dividends.

After Rodman declared at an airport press conference that he “loved” the “awesome” basketball-loving Kim Jong-un, George Stephanopoulos took a critical tone in his “This Week” interview with the Hall of Famer, who is the only known American to meet and interact with the leader of the nuclear-armed regime.

“Next time you go back, you should bring this report from The Human Rights Watch with you and maybe ask some questions about that,” Stephanopoulos said at the conclusion of the bizarre interview, in which Rodman gave a series of rambling responses to charges that he had handed Kim a propaganda victory. “You might learn a lot more.”

At the end of the interview, an increasingly defensive Rodman pointed a finger at Stephanopoulos and pleaded, “Don’t hate me.”

In the eyes of most observers, Rodman’s positive descriptions of the dictator and blasé demeanor during the ABC interview only made his decision to visit North Korea in the first place more disturbing.

Carla Robbins, a foreign policy analyst and former chief diplomatic correspondent at The Wall Street Journal, said that the photos of Rodman with Kim brought to mind the phrase “weird and weirder.” She decried the trip as “an embarrassment, especially considering the opportunity for a publicity coup in the midst of heightened tension with the U.S. that it provided Kim Jong-un.”

However, though she did not put much credence in Rodman’s ability to provide insight into Kim’s personality and motivations, Robbins noted that there were other officials on the trip who might be more useful to the U.S. government.

“If I were the administration, I would be trying to figure out who else was in the room and try to get as much information as I can,” she said.

In public comments, however, U.S. officials have made clear that they have little interest in debriefing the seven-time NBA rebounding champion.

“We haven’t been in touch with this party at all,” State Department spokesperson Patrick Ventrell said last week. “If there are Americans who, after traveling in North Korea, want to get in touch with us or have something to share with us, we take the phone calls.”

And in Monday’s briefing, White House press secretary Jay Carney deflected a question about a request Rodman said Kim made that President Obama call him. Instead of addressing the query directly, Carney criticized the rogue regime for “spending money on celebrity sporting events to entertain the elites of that country” and noted that the United States already has direct channels of communication open with North Korea.

Scott Snyder, director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that American officials were being too coy in soliciting intelligence from Rodman and the others who were on the trip.

“In my view, there’s every reason why the U.S. government would want to understand more about the process and how the trip was handled,” he said. “It’s unlikely that this is going to be considered an act of diplomacy in the end, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its utility.”

According to Snyder, information on the “Kremlinology” of the visit and how the logistics of the trip were handled -- for instance, where the visitors stayed, how they were treated, and who greeted them -- are potentially significant indicators in a country where ritual and protocol are often key to deciphering which officials have the most influence.

Other recent American travelers to North Korea, including Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, may have gotten a small view into the country’s power structure, but they were not privy to what Rodman may have seen and heard during his conversations with Kim.

“Dennis Rodman achieved something that Eric Schmidt did not achieve, so that’s worthy of attention,” Snyder said. “Rodman said that the young leader wanted Obama to call him. It certainly doesn’t mean that peace is going to break out, but it certainly should perk up the ears of responsible officials related to this. Yes, it could be a form of disinformation, but if it is a potential lead, then it needs to be analyzed and understood.”

In 2000, when Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, visited Kim’s father and predecessor, Kim Jong-il, it was her gift to the “Dear Leader” -- a Michael Jordan-signed basketball -- that proved significant enough to put on display before the cameras and help break the diplomatic ice.

Though he literally embraced a brutal tyrant, perhaps the former NBA star known as “The Worm” unwittingly caused the regime to take a step back from the brink during a time of particularly high tension with the United States.

Rodman’s trip may not have anywhere near the impact that Ping-Pong diplomacy did in helping to ease U.S.-Chinese relations in the early 1970s, but the international language of basketball clearly strikes a chord with the North Korean dictator.

“Worst-case scenario is that he gets some street cred (not that he needs any at home anyway) from a former NBA star,” Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon said of Kim in an email message. “Best case is that Kim Jong-Un remembers there's a whole world out there that he can only really access if he gradually brings the hermit kingdom out of its shell.” 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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