Skip to main content

Is Dennis Rodman smart on North Korea?

By Daniel Pinkston, Special to CNN
September 10, 2013 -- Updated 2156 GMT (0556 HKT)
Dennis Rodman sings "Happy Birthday" to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before an exhibition basketball game in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Wednesday, January 8. In his latest round of "<a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/06/world/asia/north-korea-dennis-rodman/index.html'>basketball diplomacy</a>," Rodman made his fourth visit to North Korea, one of the world's most totalitarian states, to participate in a basketball game between North Korea and a team of former NBA players. Dennis Rodman sings "Happy Birthday" to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before an exhibition basketball game in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Wednesday, January 8. In his latest round of "basketball diplomacy," Rodman made his fourth visit to North Korea, one of the world's most totalitarian states, to participate in a basketball game between North Korea and a team of former NBA players.
HIDE CAPTION
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dennis Rodman and N. Korea agreed to two games between U.S. and N. Korean players
  • Daniel Pinkston: Rodman has built up trust with leader of an isolated and paranoid country
  • He says with the extreme scarcity of trust on the Korean peninsula, the games are a good start
  • Pinkston: Denying civil society engagement with N. Korea won't solve any problems

Editor's note: Daniel Pinkston is acting director of International Crisis Group's North East Asia project. He has written frequently on how to engage North Korea and provided background information and expert analysis at Dennis Rodman's press conference on Monday.

(CNN) -- Speaking at a press conference in New York on Monday, Dennis Rodman said he had received the following instruction from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un when they were together the previous week: "Dennis, I want you to go over to America and say, 'Guess what, we want people to come over here, because we are not a bad country.' "

According to Rodman, "He likes me because I am very true and very honest." Kim let the American hold his only child, a baby girl. He also allowed Rodman to tell him "Your grandfather and your father did some bad things," which cannot be something Kim hears very often.

Rodman has somehow built up trust with the leader of probably the most isolated and paranoid country in the world. So the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Dennis Rodman signed an agreement for him to bring over 12 former NBA players to have two games with a North Korean team. However unlikely an ambassador Dennis Rodman might make, this is a positive development.

Lack of trust is often cited as one of the main obstacles to reconciliation on the Korean peninsula. Pundits and policymakers argue that establishing trust is necessary to conclude a peace treaty to replace the Korean War Armistice and to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.

If trust could be established, many people believe a North East Asian economic community could be formed that would bring greater prosperity and peace to the region. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has articulated a vision of trust-building to create a new era of inter-Korean relations and a North East Asian peace regime.

Trust-building requires human interactions. Some of this can be handled by the state. For example, this week the governments of the two Koreas agreed to reconnect the inter-Korean military hotline that was shut off in the spring. In the inter-state realm, government-to-government dialogue is necessary for building trust and securing agreements in areas such as arms control.

In some cases, governmental agreements are necessary before private actors can enter the picture. North Korean and South Korean governments will have to reach agreements before private firms and citizens can participate in business and tourism at for example, the Kaesŏng Industrial Complex and the Mount Kŭmgang Tourism Zone. However, official talks between the two Koreas have been strained as they have struggled to agree on measures to restore inter-Korean economic projects.

Dennis Rodman running foreign policy?
Rodman's hoop dreams for North Korea

Civil society engagement is not sufficient for building trust at the governmental level, but it can create channels for the transmission of information and ideas into the world's most closed society.

Sports is an excellent activity for trust-building because athletes must trust their teammates if they are to perform at their fullest potential. For example, powerlifters attempting heavy lifts have to trust their spotters to catch the bar in case they fail. In judo and other martial arts, athletes must trust their partners during training because some of the moves can cause serious injury or even death if executed improperly. In basketball, players must trust each other to be in the right spot when running a play.

Enter Dennis Rodman. The recent agreement signed by North Korea's Minister of Sports and Rodman provides for a one-week training camp in December and two matches in January 2014. Rodman told me he plans to mix up the teams so that Americans and Koreans will be playing with each other and the Koreans will have an opportunity to play on the same side with former NBA stars. This will be a great opportunity for the Korean players to improve their game, but more importantly, it will also enable them to build mutual trust and realize that they can work and cooperate with Americans.

Building trust through sports and cultural exchanges seems insignificant, but with the extreme scarcity of trust on the Korean peninsula, this is a good place to start.

Many people dissatisfied with Pyongyang seek to punish the regime by denying civil society engagement. However, this approach is unlikely to change North Korean minds, which is necessary for a change in Pyongyang's policy direction.

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Daniel Pinkston.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1425 GMT (2225 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT