A UBC Prof. looks at former NBA All-Star Dennis Rodman’s tour of North Korea and what it says about the country’s politics and its love of basketball
Dennis Rodman is leading a group of former NBA players through a tour of North Korea. Prof. Don Baker, Director, Centre for Korean Research, talks about the value of such “basketball diplomacy” and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s strange obsession with the sport.
What are your thoughts on Rodman’s latest visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea?
Rodman’s visit will do nothing to improve US-DPRK relations. Sending musicians and sports figures to the DPRK might help ease relations between the two countries, but it doesn’t help to praise Kim Jong-un the way Rodman has done. In fact, Rodman, with his talk of Kim being his good friend, may actually make it more difficult for future exchanges, especially if the people who want to visit the DPRK don’t share Rodman’s enthusiasm for “the Marshall” and would prefer to keep their visits apolitical.
What do you think the North Korean government is trying to accomplish with the tour?
The North Korean government is trying to get its people to believe that Kim Jong-un is respected all over the world. Rodman’s visit, and his singing “Happy Birthday” to Kim Jong-un, helps them make that claim. Ever since the execution of his uncle Jang Song Thaek, we have seen an increase in propaganda directed at the North Korean people about what a “peerless commander” and “benevolent leader” Kim Jong-un is, and about how all the world envies the DPRK for being led by such a wonderful man. Rodman’s visit plays into that propaganda offensive.
What does the Kim family’s love of basketball say about them? Does it highlight their conflicted feelings toward the West?
North Korea does hate the West, particularly the US, but at the same time it wants to be respected by the West. It realizes that one way to win that respect is to excel in sports. Basketball is one area in which they believe they have a chance of excelling, along with soccer and gymnastics. Also, they are still upset that an outstanding North Korean basketball player was not allowed to sign with an NBA team because he was North Korean, even though Chinese players who were not much better than him have been able to move on to the NBA. They probably hope that Rodman can help them overcome that barrier.
One of the new slogans of the Kim Jong-un regime is that the DPRK will become a major force in international sports. They hope that Rodman’s visit will heighten their visibility and maybe even help improve their basketball team.