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Dennis Rodman: 'Buffoon' or 'Breakthrough'?

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"Traitor," "Idiot," "Buffoon" -- the western media has been awash with dismissive vitriol describing Dennis Rodman's latest trip to see his "friend" -- Kim Jong Un -- the supreme leader of North Korea. Yet, whatever the criticism, Rodman has succeeded in getting Kim's focused and ongoing attention. This follows more than two decades of complete bi-partisan failure in dealing with North Korea in any meaningful way -- a period during which large portions of North Korea's population have starved, tens of thousands (if not more) were exiled and perished in camps, and the West has watched from afar as the country acquired nuclear weapons. We can certainly criticize Rodman's "friendship" in light of the miserable state of the country, the growing North Korean gulag, as well as speculation about Rodman's own narcissistic goals (to be sure, his cringe-worthy proclamations of coziness with Kim only fuel the fire). However, if Rodman deserves the level of scorn he is receiving for his "folly," so too does two decades of unsuccessful diplomacy that has only deepened animosity and elevated crisis, while accomplishing nothing in bringing change to the pitiable lives of the North Korean people.

Today, there is still no political strategy (at least none articulated publicly) for what may come next in the faceoff between North Korea and the world. Rather, we engage in short term, reactive management-by-crisis: they shell an island, we posture militarily and enact some sanctions; they cancel agreements and re-start "forbidden" activities, we seek Security Council resolutions and more political isolation. The list goes on. We've seen this list before -- for many years. It keeps recycling, and has never produced any substantive changes.

Now Rodman steps onto the court and starts a "friendly game" based on something he has to offer which our diplomacy never has: basketball. The new North Korean leader loves basketball and, by some accounts, he literally worshiped the NBA and its players throughout his youth in Pyongyang, and during his private school days in Europe. Rodman, with his flamboyant, eccentric, unpredictable, and unscripted style, may well be guilty of purely self-serving motives. But even then, does he not deserve some credit for becoming the first American to not only meet Kim in his role as leader, but to actually engage him? Even if Rodman's own intentions are purely selfish, this small opening could still lead to something bigger if envisioned, planned, and managed correctly.

Critics will respond: "We can't talk to this type of regime. Look at the suffering! The camps! The starvation! They will only understand strength, tough ultimatums, and force." Still others will argue, "Any attempt at more personal diplomacy will only serve the regime's propaganda purposes. We must never give in to blackmail... nothing will ever change!"

Such critics believe any new approach will fail when confronting such an "enemy" state -- particularly one with which we have already fought a war, has nuclear weapons, engages in widespread persecution of its people, and has been ruled for a very long time by a god-like supreme leader at the center of an institutionalized cult of personality. Yet, we should not forget that the U.S. has made such an approach before, and it yielded dramatic success.

That success also started with sports -- the 1971 U.S. Ping Pong Diplomacy with China, which was rapidly followed by the visit of President Nixon to Beijing in 1972. At the time of Nixon's visit, the U.S. had (wisely) decided to directly engage, in a more personal and friendly way, a nation that was still considered to be our "enemy" -- a nuclear nation with whom we had fought a war, and whose leadership, according to Western historians, presided over the starvation of 30+ million people during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), and the systematic persecution, exile, torture, and execution of countless others during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). In fact, at the time of Nixon's visit, the "disastrous" Cultural Revolution was still underway in China, but that did not prevent the president from attending a revolutionary "model opera" performance and dining with Jiang Qing -- the vilified head of the "Gang of Four" leadership clique responsible for the worst abuses of the period. And although Nixon's dialogue with China's leaders in Beijing did, in fact, generate heavy propaganda inside the country before, during, and after his visit, that did not disrupt the subsequent thawing of relations between the two countries that led to real, long lasting changes. Today, no one questions Nixon's vision in changing our approach with our former "enemy" and, in hindsight, the opening, development, and integration of China on the world stage in the four decades that followed has been nothing short of remarkable. The last thing history would ever say about Nixon's initiative was that he "rewarded" an autocratic regime with his willingness to meet directly and talk.

So, while the world rails at Rodman and his admittedly distasteful "buddy-buddy" embrace of his pal-in-Pyongyang, we must look beyond his often crude caricature to remind ourselves of meaningful lessons and opportunities that clearly reverberate from his trips: lessons on the transcending power of shared passions (e.g. ping pong, basketball), the lessons of past diplomatic turnarounds that had once been utterly unthinkable, and any opportunities to rethink or recast our dialogue to finally move beyond the long, fiercely confrontational status-quo which has not moved North Korea even one inch forward. Perhaps, just perhaps, the ball is now in our court.

Note to my readers: I first blogged on the potential for sports diplomacy (including basketball diplomacy) with North Korea in June 2010 at the time of the World Cup in South Africa -- more than a year before Kim Jong Un assumed the leadership, and almost three years before Dennis Rodman's first trip to Pyongyang. I invite you to read that blog at this link.