Up Close and Personal: Dennis Rodman Hits Pyongyang

By | March 01, 2013 | 5 Comments

'Popularize Basketball in Every Organ and Enterprise!' | Channel-A screen capture

‘Popularize Basketball in Every Organ and Enterprise!’ | Channel-A screen capture

Former NBA “bad boy” Dennis Rodman is not as incongruous a symbol for North Korean diplomacy as might be seen at first blush: Rodman’s own career in sport, like the ethos offered up by Kim Jong-un’s beloved fictional hero Rocky Balboa, offers an approximation of North Korea’s own hardscrabble ethic, its willingness to generously offend, its undersized but effective pugilism. It’s about hustle, and knocking the big guy down a peg. And it is not every day, or every decade for that matter, that an American citizen is allowed to stand up and tower over the Respected General whilespeaking alone to a massive auditorium in Pyongyang, making statements that Schiller or Beethoven would recognize even if the words were emerging from an unexpected visage.    

But this brotherly love has got a massive underbelly, and probing at it is not a task to be taken up lightly. Christopher Green has written extensively about the daily difficulties facing ordinary North Koreans who, if they had electricity at all, watched the Rodman-Kim Globetrotter summit with more concern than bemusement about the future. Here, Green turns his analytical eye to the politics of sport in the DPRK, and finds some previously-unseen connections between North Korea’s diplomatic strategy and Chosun’s vaunted “fog.” — Adam Cathcart, Chief Editor 

Up Close and Personal: Dennis Rodman Hits Pyongyang

by Christopher Green

You Would Struggle to Make It Up: Intro | Dennis Rodman, Shane Smith and VICE turn up in North Korea alongside a handful of Harlem Globetrotters. Rodman hangs out with Kim Jong-un and Ri Sol-joo at a Pyongyang indoor stadium. They watch a 110-110 game involving members of the DPRK national team. Rodman drinks a Coke, with the label facing the camera. Kim Jong-un laughs. Shutters blink. Twitter.

For the optimist, always one eye on the ping-pong Peking precedent, the visit is nothing less than a breakthrough in “basketball diplomacy.” For the naysayer, Kim Jong-un likes to play ball, and in North Korea the Suryong(수령;  supreme leader)’s opinion is all that matters. In other words, no need to hunt down the broader meaning.

However, neither view is sufficient, is it? Yes, Nate Thayer notes in this piece for NKnews, “The cross dressing, pierced and tattooed Hollywood celebrity has a very high-level fan club in Pyongyang.” Equally, there is probably truth in Shane Smith’s claim that “Kim Jong-un’s love of basketball was why the trip was approved.”

Yet, while it would certainly be pleasant if the presence in Pyongyang of a faded NBA superstar and a TV producer best-known for madcap sensationalism were not news, we aren’t there yet. As a result, there is literally zero chance that the visit went ahead simply because Kim Jong-un happens to like hoops. To my knowledge, nobody has ever suggested that the wrestling event held in Pyongyang in 1995 only went ahead because the new leader in those days, Kim Jong-il, was a huge fan of WWF Smackdown.

A WWF event in Pyongyang, dateline 1995 | image via ROKDrop

A wrestling event in Pyongyang, dateline 1995 | image via ROKDrop

Love Unrequited: What Rodman Packs that Bill Ain’t Got | Of course, one natural response to the sight of Rodman hanging out with Kim and Ri is to question why it is that the North Korean authorities continue to leave earnest, sincere people like Jean Lee and Bill Richardson out in the cold, despite them arguably having power that Rodman does not have to help North Korea bring about certain public relations and diplomatic outcomes.

But this is not a complicated question, as long as we hold to a clear view of North Korea’s goals. To this end, a thought experiment: From the North Korean government’s perspective, what would be achieved by giving the AP’s Pyongyang bureau more access?

As I have argued on a number of prior occasions, North Korea is governed according to strict rules of secrecy. In a very real sense, “Chosun must be wrapped in a fog.” Things revealed in the domestic media and to the international media are revealed for specific reasons, and those things that are not revealed are often as telling as those that are. Leaving aside the thorny question of whether the AP bureau in the North Korean capital is doing good or harm in toto: we must accept that it is one of the many tools of the North Korean theater state, a place where art, including the media, is a medium by which “the upper” interacts with everyone outside the citadel it inhabits, meaning 95% of the North Korean people plus you, me and everyone we know. Access is precious, and must be rationed lest it lose its mystique and value. The Kim family has a monopoly.

Equally, one must then ask: What would the Kim Jong-un government achieve by treating Bill Richardson as well as it treated “The Worm”?

The only answer that is ever given to this question is that lovin’ Bill offers a tempting connection to the United States government, one that North Korea needs in order to extract aid from a partner willing (in exchange for denuclearization) and able to provide the kind of assistance that would be needed to resurrect North Korea’s moribund economy.

Yet to suggest such a concept is to pay absolutely no attention to North Korea’s general attitude to aid, assistance and the broader goal of economic improvement. As proven last year when Pyongyang scuppered a slowly burgeoning dialogue with Tokyo by conducting the December 12th rocket launch, the issue of obtaining hard currency (in this case the $10 billion notionally on offer for normalizing relations with Japan) is very much a secondary concern. The North Korean government may want money, and would certainly never turn it down, but it is nevertheless a peripheral goal. The Royal Court Economy (궁중경제) will continue to operate regardless, and the top leadership will not go hungry. That being the case, what does the Richardson-Namkung-Delury nexus of Google delegation fame bring to the party? For North Korea, nothing whatsoever. Yet the foreign gentlemen benefit from access, or the appearance of it, and will surely return as night follows day.

So, then, the key question: what does Pyongyang achieve by having Rodman and the Globetrotters over for tea and a throw-down game of ball in the capital of the revolution?

One of the defectors from 'On My Way to Meet You' describes the race to set up nets nationwide | Channel-A screen capture

One of the defectors from ‘On My Way to Meet You’ describes the race to set up nets nationwide | Channel-A screen capture

Plenty. There are two things to note: first, that North Korea has been dedicated to the cause of basketball domestically for years; and second, that North Korea under Kim Jong-un is wholly dedicated to propaganda slamdunking through sport.

Boing Boing: North Korea Falls in Love with Hoops | The dedication to basketball is well documented. As noted in October 2012 on the Channel-A hit talk show ‘Now on My Way to Meet You’ (이제 만나러 갑니다), in 2001 Kim Jong-il, troubled by the decreasing height of his increasingly malnourished subjects, ordered the launch of the ‘Grow Taller Movement’ (키 크기 운동), a concept which involved putting up basketball nets in “every government agency, enterprise, factory and army unit.” According to one defector, this was because basketball was deemed “the best sport for growing tall.”

On December 27th, 2001, Youths’ Advance Guard (청년전위), the publication of the Kim Il-sung Youth League, published an article extolling the virtues of this shift to basketball, declaring that “This year, Youth League organizations and young people have been energetically raising up the ‘basketball wave.’ Courts have been set up in schools, factories and on farms, and everywhere basketball is becoming more popular.”

“In senior middle schools [combined middle and upper schools], appropriate basketball skills are being taught to all levels, starting in low grades all the way to high grades,” it went on. “Basketball matches have been formalized, and all are thriving off basketball.”

As such, inviting Dennis Rodman to Pyongyang is, first, a great way for Kim Jong-un to tap once more into his father’s legacy, perpetuating the ‘legacy politics’ (유훈정치) that the North Korean government has been using to rhetorically back many of its policy choices since the death of Kim Jong-il in late 2011.

Taking Possession of Sporting Prowess: The State Sports Guidance Committee | The second point is no less important. Fast forward to 2012, when North Korea took an impressive four gold medals at the London Olympics. Not long thereafter, a full politburo meeting was convened to proclaim the creation of a State Sports Guidance Committee (국가체육지도위원회). The entity, featuring National Defense Commission Vice-Chairman Jang Sung-taek atop a team of 30+ officials from the Party, military and administration, was charged with “further implementing the party’s plan of building a sports power in which a historic turn is being effected in carrying out the revolutionary cause of Juche.”

Mere days later, the new committee embarked upon what Sejong Institute researcher Cheong Seong-chang called “the politicization of the apolitical,” using nominally value-neutral sporting interactions with a visiting group from Nippon Sports Science University to generate a domestic public relations buzz behind the new propaganda theme. The committee’s interactions with the Japanese delegation led by long-time “sporting engagement” point man and former wrestler (see above image of 1995 event) Antonio Inoki were reported in a torrent of material carried by the North Korean state media. Indeed, on a number of days in November the percentage of daily reports carried by KCNA that pertained to the actions of the committee, either as the subject of a report or an accidental participant in a report on a match between Japanese and North Korean teams of one sort or another, exceeded 50% by a substantial margin.

Simultaneously, new athletic equipment began appearing in some schools. There was even talk of physical education (PE) being added to the examined portion of the compulsory school curriculum, and those unable to pass the test facing the possibility (in principle, at least) of being denied entry to university. In mid January, reports emerged that monthly ‘sports days’ were being resurrected as part of the drive for improved sporting prowess.

Is he really tall, or is he really short? So many questions as Kim and Rodman hug | image via Nordkorea-Info

Is he really tall, or is he really short? So many questions as Kim and Rodman hug | image via Nordkorea-Info

Give Him a Sporting Chance: Conclusion | It is into this domestic trend that the latest visit by Rodman should rightly be placed. As Xinhua noted in a report on Kim and Rodman sitting together to watch the game on Thursday, the entire event came about because the North Korean Ministry of Physical Culture and Sport issued an invitation to the Americans. This indicates the government’s interest in it, and the regime’s interest in pursuing sport as a way to add value to the youthful rule of Kim Jong-un. While it may or may not be the case that Rodman got the nod ahead of any other NBA Hall of Famer for the simple reason that Kim Jong-chul liked him when he was in school in Switzerland, that should not in itself be taken as sufficient to explain the whole story.

Sport is a useful ideological and spiritual tool for simple reasons: it brings people together, identifying them with a state to which they might otherwise be largely ambivalent or even hostile. Sport is capable of generating patriotic support for a state more quickly, and with more energy, than anything else short of war. That’s why North Korea really likes basketball.

5 Comments

  1. Terrific article. Best thing I’ve yet read on this. Bravo!

  2. Glad you liked it, Aidan!

  3. I agree with Aidan. Clear, straightforward, well-articulated essay of an event that many western news outlets are misinterpreting.
    -Ben Young

  4. Good, thought provoking piece. Nice reference to Flair-Inoki as well. Very minor critique: Smackdown wasn’t around in ’95 and this was WCW, the WWF’s main rival. Still a clever valid point.

  5. I’ve added another correction here, but it still remains in the spam filter, so I’ve posted the point in my latest blog piece.