On September 1, North Korea revoked an invitation to Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights, on account of joint U.S.-South Korean war games in which the U.S. allegedly used B-52H aircrafts designed to drop nuclear missiles. North Korea has detained six Americans since 2009 but pardoned five of them before their sentences were served, in part because of high profile diplomatic visits from former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. King intended to secure the release of Kenneth Bae, the sixth imprisoned American sentenced to 15 years in a North Korean gulag.
But one American whose travel to North Korea won't be interrupted, however, is NBA star Dennis Rodman. Rodman, who has previously traveled to North Korea in February 2013, insists that he is not acting in any diplomatic capacity but instead intends to merely spend time with his friend Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and to "show people around the world that we as Americans can actually get along with North Korea."
While Rodman's endeavors qualify as quintessential, vital public diplomacy, there is always a fine line between promoting bilateral relationships and implicitly condoning severe human rights abuses. The latter is what Rodman is really doing, to the detriment of Kenneth Bae and the North Korean people as he tries to cast Kim Jong-un in an overly positive light.
Rodman was likely the first American to ever meet Kim Jong-un when he travelled to North Korea with the Harlem Globetrotters as part of Vice Media founder Shane Smith's documentary on the reclusive, isolated country, which aired in June 2013 on HBO. In the spirit of President Richard Nixon's ping pong diplomacy, which paved the way for formal U.S.-China relations, Smith and Rodman were emphasizing "basketball diplomacy," capitalizing on the U.S. and North Korea's shared fascination with the sport.
Although the concept of basketball diplomacy is a productive, innovative way to thaw frosty relationships with Kim Jong-un's regime, Rodman seems unable to grasp the implications of North Korea's gross human rights abuses as he unabashedly lavishes praise on the supreme leader and his predecessors, which the government no doubt uses as propaganda reaffirming their rule.
As North Korean elites entertained Rodman and his party at high-profile, expensive galas, contrasting severely with the impoverished lifestyle of most North Koreans, he referred to Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung as "great leaders." Buying into the regime's carefully staged propaganda tours, Rodman asserted that Kim Jong-un's country "loves him." Taking it a step further, he went on to say "Guess what, I love him. The guy's really awesome."
Rodman is either unaware, or willfully overlooking, Kim Jong-un's severe human rights abuses. The dictator is just as megalomaniacal as his father and grandfather, purging his political opponents and estranged personal ties, such as his ex girlfriend, by firing squad. In addition to the American Kenneth Bae, the regime has forced more than 200,000 North Koreans, many of whom are political prisoners, into labor camps, where they routinely die from the work, subpar nutrition, and torture from the guards.
To his credit, Rodman tweeted to Kim Jong-un, requesting that the supreme leader "do him a solid" and release Bae. If Rodman truly intends to try securing Bae's release, he likely wouldn't announce it before his visit. But his prior behavior and close personal relationship with North Korea's leader indicates that he is primarily concerned with maintaining their friendship without actually leveraging the relationship to accomplish anything productive.
Public diplomacy, whether it be from governments or private citizens, is a vital part of international peace keeping, coalition building, and understanding. However, true public diplomacy takes place between the people of a country, not between a privileged, high-profile basketball star and a repressive government. Rodman seems to fundamentally misunderstand his point and the ample opportunities he provides to fuel the North Korean propaganda machine undermine any net positives gained from his "basketball diplomacy."