Dennis Rodman and North Korea: Playing With Fire

Posted on January 10, 2014


He was naive.  He should never have gone to North Korea in the first place.  But human-rights activists expecting him to free an imprisoned American are expecting far too much.

Dennis Rodman first traveled to North Korea under the auspices of Vice Media, which was filming a documentary there and used Rodman and several members of the Harlem Globetrotters to pique the interest of the North Korean regime and gain entry to the country.  Korean strongman Kim Jong Un, famously a basketball fan, took quite the shine to the flamboyant Rodman, and they bonded over an exhibition basketball game.  Rodman came home singing the praises of his new best friend.

Rodman returned to North Korea with funding from Paddy Power, the Irish sports betting company.  His idea was “basketball diplomacy,” to put on a US-North Korea basketball competition in the spirit of friendship.  One might argue – and some did- that anything that might open the door a little bit would be a good thing.

Well, it didn’t take long for human rights activists to hope aloud that Rodman might be able to use his new friendship with his eternal bosom buddy Kim to lobby for the release of Kenneth Bae.  Bae, an American citizen, has been held in a labor camp since November 2012, is sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for “hostile acts,” and in August 2013 was transferred to a hospital due to failing health.

You know, it’s a little tricky dealing with a dictator like Kim.  He apparently thinks nothing of executing his own uncle – a man who was instrumental in Kim’s rise to power –  as well as publicly executing some 80 other people who committed such heinous crimes as owning a Bible.

As Kenneth Bae’s own plight demonstrates, being American is no protection, either.  North Korea has imprisoned  six Americans since 2009.*  Bae is the only one still in custody.  He went there legally, with valid documentation, as a tour operator.  What got him imprisoned was, reportedly, images of starving North Korean children on his laptop computer.  This should be a lesson to Rodman that North Korea is incredibly sensitive to any whiff of criticism.

So when Rodman was questioned about Kenneth Bae during a CNN interview while Rodman was in North Korea, he blew up at interviewer Chris Cuomo:  “Do you understand what he did in this country? …No, no, no, you tell me, you tell me. Why is he held captive here in this country, why?”  The following day, he sang “Happy Birthday” to his friend Kim.

The outburst drew immediate and intense condemnation from Kenneth Bae’s family and human rights activists, but I have to ask them:  what behavior, exactly, did they expect?  Rodman is not a diplomat.  He has no protection at all from the whims of his best buddy Kim.  As the record has shown, to criticize Kim or North Korea while in North Korea is a supremely risky thing.  By repeatedly and publicly asking the inexperienced and completely unprotected Rodman to lobby for the release of Bae, those human-rights activists (and CNN host Chris Cuomo)  were actually putting Rodman at risk.  Rodman had already taken a risk, whether he knew it or not, by publicly Tweeting last May that he was asking Kim to “do me a solid and cut Kenneth Bae loose,” and then returning to North Korea.  Notice that Rodman did not bring that subject up again.  I’d bet there’s a reason for that.

Believe me, Rodman’s Tweet back in May is about all the pressure one can reasonably expect from an unprotected American in North Korea.

Since his return to the US, Rodman has apologized for his outburst, blaming it on alcohol.  Personally, I don’t think Rodman should ever have gone to North Korea at all, but I also think that Chris Cuomo should have known better than to ask him a baiting, dangerous question like that.   I can’t help but wonder if Rodman’s outburst was actually prompted at least a little by fear.

My advice to Rodman:  you had your basketball match.  Everyone you took with you came home again.  Be glad for that, and don’t go back.

*Two journalists in pursuit of a story on refugees illegally crossed into North Korea, and spent 5 months in detention.  Former President Bill Clinton had to go make nice with then-reigning Kim Jong Il, raising Kim’s prestige while abasing that of the US, to get the journalists released.

Shortly afterward, Robert Park crossed into North Korea to “bring God’s love” to this officially atheist country (did I mention that thing about people being executed for having Bibles?).  It was no surprise that he ended up imprisoned for 43 days, a time during which he says he was tortured and sexually abused.   When he was released… after making a round of heart-rending apologies and glowing remarks about the joys of North Korea… the US claimed there had been no “deals” with the DPRK government.  Park suffers from continued physical and psychological problems.

Then, in 2010, there was Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who also entered the country illegally and was arrested and sentenced to 8 years hard labor. His motive was never made public, but he apparently had humanitarian purposes in mind.  He spent 7 months in detention there and like the journalists, it took the groveling of a former US President… Carter this time… to get him out.

Kenneth Bae was arrested in November 2012 and is still imprisoned in North Korea.

Most recently, an 85-year-old US veteran of the Korean War (age is no protection!), who went on an organized 10-day group tour of North Korea  was arrested just as he was on the plane and ready to depart at the end of the tour.  He was accused of “hostile acts” and war crimes, held for six weeks, and had to “apologize.”  He was finally released thanks to cooperation between our Embassy in Beijing and the Swedish Embassy in North Korea.