Basketball Diplomacy

If we bring pro sports to North Korea they will DOMINATE the halftime shows. 

I was in elementary school in the mid 1990s, which according to Wikipedia was something of a magical time for the Chicago Bulls. I was as oblivious to pro sports then as I am now, but the Bulls were so popular at school that I still had some sense for the big players. There was Michael Jordan, the guy from Space Jam, Scottie Pippen, who had not been in Space Jam, and then Dennis Rodman, who I always figured was the Bulls’ mascot drunkenly playing with the team.

I’d seen Dennis Rodman on the news a lot – usually in handcuffs, once in a wedding dress – and my parents always spoke of him in the exact same tone they used when the dog had made a mess in the house. “Sophie took a Dennis Rodman in the living room; have we got any more bleach?” What’s more, every third grader in my class thought he behaved like a jackass, and you really need to be a special kind of dipshit for a room full of 9 year olds to think you’re immature.

After his suspension from the NBA in the late 90s, Rodman faded from the public eye for 15 years or so. No doubt frustrated that his dabblings in pro wrestling and reality TV hadn’t raised his public profile back to Chicago Bulls levels, Rodman did what anybody else would do and traveled to North Korea to become best friends with the country’s basketball-loving dictator for life, Kim Jong Un.

This generated a lot of controversy because Kim Jong Un has a pretty good track record of being kind of a dick, what with the famine and corruption and 200,000 people in forced labor prison camps and everything. But over the course of several trips to North Korea in the past year, Rodman has insisted that he’s just trying to ease tensions between the US and North Korea through sports, and that Kim Jong Un is actually a really nice guy once you get past the cult of personality and his fondness for publicly executing his family members.  

Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong Un’s bromance must be pretty strong because yesterday, during a satellite interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, Rodman shouted the journalist down for suggesting that he advocate for the release of Kenneth Bae, an American sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea. Profane and near tears, flanked by a group of increasingly mortified NBA players who had accompanied him on this trip, Rodman defended his time in North Korea, saying that his “basketball diplomacy” would eventually open relations between North Korea and the United States.*

*In his defense, he was pretty drunk at the time.  

On some level you just have to admire Dennis Rodman for thinking that basketball is going to be the thing that’ll fix North Korea. For more than half a century the brightest diplomats, political scientists, and statesmen from South Korea, the US, the United Nations, and China haven’t had any luck, but maybe once the people of North Korea watch a former Celebrity Apprentice contestant dunk on their national team a few times they’ll come to their senses and let the capitalism flow in.

Honestly, if I was a North Korean, watching a bunch of NBA guys playing basketball in my country would just make me more angry at America. I mean, 10% of the country starved to death in the 1990s and food shortages continue to this day – making these poor people watch a bunch of American athletes in peak physical condition play a fast paced game of basketball feels sort of like we’re rubbing it in.

“Hey, you know why these basketball players are so tall? Because they’ve had adequate nutrition for their entire lives! Look how fast they can run and high they can jump – I guess regular, balanced meals give you lots of energy! Don’t you wish you could do that? Look, I know you haven’t eaten anything but tree bark for the past two weeks, but check out this layup. Life for you may be a daily struggle to find enough sustenance to keep your body functioning, but these guys are wealthy beyond your wildest imagination purely because they’re good at putting a ball through a hoop.”

Don’t get me wrong – I think sports can be a great way to foster peace between nations.* But I think that calling what Dennis Rodman is doing right now “diplomacy” is being a little bit generous. Really, he’s just taking a vacation in a pretty crappy place – I visited Salem during the holidays and you don’t hear me trying to pass it off as a diplomatic mission. 

*It's also a great way to foster riots, but that's mainly soccer. 

Diplomacy, I think, is usually the work of diplomats, and diplomats are usually not violent alcoholics who used to be married to Carmen Electra. A US-North Korea basketball game could probably be a good step toward peace, but you kind of need both countries to be behind that sort of thing for it to be really effective.

The government of North Korea goes to great lengths to make sure that all of its citizens hate America. A couple of basketball games are no match for a robust and pervasive propaganda apparatus, not to mention 60 years of revisionist history where the United States is responsible for even more travesties than we actually are.

From what I’ve read, the gist of a lot of North Korean propaganda is that Western capitalists are lazy, irresponsible buffoons. Instead of breaking down the barriers between our cultures, I feel like The Worm stumbling around Pyongyang is probably propping them up.

Truman Capps would still love to see a gritty reboot of Space Jam where instead of aliens it's North Koreans kidnapping NBA players.