“It would be like inviting Hitler to lunch.”
This was Democratic Representative Eliot Engel’s analysis of former NBA star Dennis Rodman’s fourth visit to North Korea in celebration of Kim Jong-Un’s birthday. Maybe Hitler needed more lunches with brawny, cross-dressing African-Americans twice his size. But enough Reductio ad Hitlerum.
Engel isn’t the only one to lambast the famous power forward for his close relationship to the young dictator. NBA commissioner David Stern, North Korea Freedom chairman Suzanne Chelti, several ex-NBA stars, and a number of North Korean defectors have also gone on record expressing disappointment with Rodman and his posse of former NBA players for engaging in an exhibition tour of the DPRK. Their arguments are predictable. They shout that North Korea is a totalitarian state and that Rodman’s lavish expeditions and praise for the Supreme Leader (“he is my friend…I love him”) is propaganda for the pariah government, with the potential to affect North Korea’s standing on the world stage.
In reality, such criticism vastly overestimates Rodman’s power to persuade a global audience that North Korea is anything other than an ultra-secretive, isolationist, and militarised circus. Rodman (or “Rodzilla”, as he was known when he chanced his arm at professional wrestling in the late 1990s) is not generally considered a highly credible political voice. When I think of great diplomatic leaders, I think of Benjamin Franklin, Kofi Annan, Leo McGarry- not the man who said he refused Madonna the pleasure of “munching her carpet.” Rodman is widely regarded as an eccentric, and Americans tend to giggle and gasp at his public antics rather than pay them credence. His sojourn to North Korea is, for them, nothing more than a sideshow in the circus they consider Rodman’s life.
So, what actually are the likely outcomes of this bizarre trans-Pacific bromance? Rodman’s relationship with Kim Jong-Un is hardly going to increase the strain between North Korea and the West. At worst, things will stay the same. It’s also possible that his friendship with the Supreme Leader might allow North Koreans to see beyond the state funded construction of Americans as hook nosed sadists, and ease tensions between the two arch-nemeses. But, even if he does nothing to improve relations with the U.S., his presence has the potential to make a difference within the hermit kingdom.
In a country where the ability to conform can be the difference between life and death, Dennis Rodman’s power lies in his non-conformity. Whereas North Korean society censures public displays of affection, Rodman has married and dated a collection of the world’s most promiscuous women, including Carmen Electra and Madonna. He has publicly claimed the latter broke his penis three times during intercourse, and once received oral sex whilst conducting a radio interview.
Rodman’s relationship with authority figures is also not very North Korean. Civil disobedience in the DPRK, even if only suspected, can lead to dismembered digits or the forced digging of one’s grave. As a basket baller, Rodman routinely missed training and once head-butted a referee. As a professional WCW wrestler, he “dropped the elbow” on a referee in his bout against Macho Man Randy Savage. It was probably part of the act, but then again, it was Dennis Rodman.
And then there is the huge vertical difference. At 2.01 metres, Rodman stands head, shoulders, chest, and torso above most North Koreans, who are already at a disadvantage. According to research conducted at Seoul National University, North Korean men born in the 1980s are 8.3 centimetres shorter than South Korean men, whilst North Korean women are 5.2 centimetres shorter than South Korean women.
Of course, most North Koreans would not know these facts about Rodman due to their Orwellian media machine and Internet access so limited it makes China look like WikiLeaks. But even the symbolic gravity of having a colourful, androgynous, tattooed, and pierced giant photographed laughing with and hugging their ‘Dear Leader’ is palpable.
Sure, he could be a little more circumspect in his praise of Kim, and it would be wise of him to remain apolitical in the media, but that just isn’t Rodman’s way. He risks appearing callous and ignorant, but that is exactly why he is the perfect emissary. Indeed, the more he riles the White House and mainstream America, the more likely Kim Jong-Un will trust him.
At best, he will eventually broach human rights issues, as he has vowed to do. He will help secure the release of American prisoner, Kenneth Bae, and facilitate talks between the DPRK and the U.S. He will initiate the process that will lead to denuclearization and the lifting of sanctions. It’s a long shot, a long three point fade away shot on the buzzer, but he’s the best chance there currently is, and there’s nothing to lose.
Dennis Rodman, the man who has been labelled a freak, an animal, a fagg*t, a playboy, a rock star, a kid, a loser, and a prophet, may just be able to help North Korea grow up. Even if it is only by a few centimetres.