Former NBA star and self-appointed international goodwill ambassador Dennis Rodman has taken much heat, all deserved, and that includes heat from himself, for his admittedly drunken rant in a CNN interview. Rodman's abysmal ignorance about the plight of captive American Kenneth Bae was on full and embarrassing display in the interview. He beat a hasty retreat from it in the face of withering criticism from Bae's family and any and everyone else who paid even the scantest attention to Rodman's outburst.
But he did prove two points in his interview and his globe trots to North Korea. One is that when a celebrity or sports figure open their mouth about a weighty political issue almost always bad things happen. The other point is that there's something to be said for his effort to slightly pry open the tightly closed window on a rogue, authoritarian regime. North Korea more than fits that bill. The history of U.S. and much of the Western world's conflict and condemnation of the regime is well known. There's North Korea's bloody invasion of the South, the capture of the US ship Pueblo in 1968, and the prolonged hostage standoff, and the nuclear weapons tussle with the U.S.
Forgotten, though, is that there was a brief period in the early to mid-1990s when it seemed there would be a breakthrough in U.S. and North Korean relations. The countries held three lengthy negotiating sessions to pound out a weapons control agreement on North Korea's development of a nuclear arsenal. They came close. The deal called for North Korea to freeze its nuclear weapons development program. The U.S. and other Western nations would provide the country with fuel and a couple of small power plants. But most importantly, the deal was regarded as a first big step toward an eventual normalization of relations between North Korea and the U.S. It didn't happen.
The agreement dissolved in a deluge of finger pointing, accusations, and wrangling over spy charges and military threats. It stayed that way for years and it appeared nothing would change. Enter Rodman. The always controversial, unorthodox, and to many wacky ex-NBAer figured out that a cozy up to the regime would draw a mix of amusement, scorn, and head scratching and get himself back in the headlines. But whether through intent or accident, Rodman, in traveling to the world's number one pariah nation, stumbled onto the harsh political fact that at times when belligerent nations are at seemingly hopeless loggerheads, an offbeat jaunt from a non-political personage may actually do some good.
It's not illegal to travel to North Korea. And Rodman is hardly the first noted American to trek there. Legions of journalists, arts travelers and politicians have made the trek, and that included the New York Philharmonic in 2008.
But Rodman is a special case. He's the highest profile non-political celebrity to travel to North Korea and he taps into the sports mania that has always been a surefire eye catcher for politicians. Baseball, hockey, track and field, and of course basketball team junkets have often been the precursor for a return by officials to the diplomatic table.
Rodman and his entourage of high profile former NBA players that played to a packed sports audience in the country and garnered global news coverage, might do the same. His apology for blowing it on Bae and his quick back pedal won't prompt anyone to rush and toss a bouquet at him. He'll still be lambasted by human rights groups and much of the public. Yet Rodman has one unique advantage that US officials could not have. And that's a seemingly close relation with the one man that makes the decisions in the country, Pak Pong-ju. His word is literally law.
If Rodman can amuse him and ingratiate himself to him by serenading him publicly on his birthday, and say the right things that Pong-ju wants the world to hear about his country then that opens the faint possibility that the dictator might be open to talking with an American who counts. The fact that the State Department took pains to publicly make clear that Rodman doesn't speak for the U.S. government was a kind of backdoor testament that Rodman's basketball diplomacy could have some value. It is certainly a marker that State Department officials are closely watching his doings in the country.
Few expect any miracle breakthroughs to come from his trip. And there won't be any magical transformation of the nation into a paragon of democratic openness. But that's less important for now then that Rodman again refocused the glare of attention on a country that has been the world's bandit nation and outlandish human rights violator. His clownish, stumbling, and garbled venture did just that. That alone may qualify him to be the right messenger on North Korea.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.