Skip to main content

Give Dennis Rodman a break

By Andray Abrahamian
January 7, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 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
  • On CNN, Dennis Rodman defended his visit to North Korea, saying it's a good idea
  • Andray Abrahamian: Visit puts Rodman in the spotlight and is good PR for Kim Jong Un
  • He says this kind of engagement cannot always be seen as reward for a naughty regime
  • Abrahamian: While this trip feels like a gift for regime, it may pave way for future diplomacy

Editor's note: Andray Abrahamian is a contributor to 38North and executive director of Choson Exchange, a nonprofit that provides educational training in business and economics for young North Koreans. Follow him on Twitter: @chosonexchange

(CNN) -- This week, we've been treated to the increasingly familiar sight of former NBA star and provocateur Dennis Rodman attending events in Pyongyang, North Korea. It's his fourth trip in less than 12 months.

On Tuesday, an angry Rodman defended his visit in a CNN interview straight from Pyongyang, at one point saying to "New Day" anchor Chris Cuomo, "I don't give a rat's ass what the hell you think ..." in response to question about Kenneth Bae, an American detained in North Korea.

When will we tire of this circus?

Andray Abrahamian
Andray Abrahamian

In case you don't watch cable news, you might miss that the media really loves this kind of thing. No story about North Korea is too weird to go unreported, even if there is no real information to disseminate. Recall the recent rumor that Kim Jong Un's uncle was executed by being fed to hungry dogs, which most likely was started as satire on Chinese social media but was at first reported widely in the media (CNN was unable to confirm and did not report the story).

In media discourse, North Korea is the classic enemy. The regime's injustices, quirks and dysfunctions are reassuring to Americans that their own country is just the opposite: Normal, well-functioning, a land of peace and liberty.

But add in Rodman to the North Korea story, and it's bound to produce eye-popping headlines: The Weird American Athlete Goes to Weird Country story is just too easy not to cover.

Rodman defiant in odd N. Korea defense
Rodman fiery on Kenneth Bae question
Rodman to CNN: I don't give a s***
Cuomo: Rodman isn't on cultural exchange

Rodman himself seems to be thriving on finding a strange smidgen of relevance through his visits to North Korea (and perhaps a Paddy Power paycheck). Though often described as quite shy, he has always enjoyed challenging the values of Middle America. North Korea is providing him a new avenue to be in the spotlight.

The most passive player in this tragicomedy is Rodman's home country, the United States. The U.S. State Department has deployed the rhetorical equivalent of an embarrassed teenager whose dad has shown up to dance at his prom. Something along the lines of "this has nothing to do with us" is what the State Department has said with every one of Rodman's trip. Last winter,the State Department criticized Rodman's timing as it followed a nuclear test and rocket launch. This time, it has merely said a private individual can do what he wishes.

This is an understandably cautious position. After all, Rodman has professed his love and undying affection for Kim, and he is probably not a canny enough operator to spearhead any form of political outreach along the lines of the "Ping-Pong diplomacy."

On this trip, Rodman addressed the unavoidably political nature of a relationship with North Korea, saying his visits could "open the doors" to "talk about certain things." In the CNN interview, he argued that it's a "great idea for the world."

Rodman's celebrity status and sporting prowess has given him access to Kim. At some point, when both the U.S. and North Korean governments are feeling a little brave, perhaps they can try to thaw the ice with more professional diplomats tagging along on cultural or sporting exchanges.

There are precedents. For example, the U.S.-China Ping-Pong diplomacy of the 1970s had its genesis in table tennis player by the name of Glen Cowan. Once he broke the ice, the governments began talking.

The kind of engagement that Rodman is pushing cannot always be seen as merely rewards for a naughty regime, as much as we appear locked into a carrot-and-stick way of thinking about relations with North Korea. It can be mutually beneficial. We have the potential to gain as much as they do. Breakthroughs might be sudden and surprising, but they are usually underpinned by creative thinking, dialogue and the mutual acceptance that no one can get exactly what they want.

Unfortunately, this particular trip does feel somewhat like a gift, coming as it does on Kim's birthday and less than a month after the violent and very public purge of his uncle and second-in-charge, Jang Song Thaek.

Had Rodman pulled out or delayed, the channel for opening may well have closed. If he really is in it for the long haul, he probably couldn't afford to slight the leader on his birthday.

Domestically, it is great PR for Kim. He gets to appear gregarious and inclusive in front of his people. Notwithstanding Jang's execution, this is the image he has been assiduously cultivating. He's eager to promote his friendly, approachable image while at the same time enjoying watching some former stars play his favorite sport.

For now, little will come out of Rodman's visits other than extraneous news. But as Pyongyang continues to devote resources and energy to sports development, its appetite for athletic exchanges will increase. Let's warily hope, to use Rodman's phrase, that this can "open the doors" to other things.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andray Abrahamian.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 13, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
To prevent war with North Korea over a comedy, what would Dennis Rodman say to Kim Jong Un? Movie critic Gene Seymour weighs in.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT