That Dennis Rodman is unconventional, even unbalanced, was evident when he played professional basketball. His athletic skills won him a lucrative contract, but his behavior suggested no interest in diplomatic protocol. What you see is what you get.
In fact, a couple of colleagues and I were speculating that he is a CIA case officer under very deep cover, trained decades ago. After all, if people believe you are insane, you can get away with most everything. Even if the North Koreans caught him snooping on his "friend for life" Kim Jong-un's computer, they probably would write off his actions as just another bizarre personality quirk.
Still, the simpler explanation is that he is weird, uninhibited, and egotistical. His behavior is just Dennis Rodman being Dennis Rodman. Nothing more or less.
He has been much criticized for visiting the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, a brutal totalitarian dictatorship which probably is the most repressive system on earth. There are no political freedoms or civil liberties. Open Doors just released its latest World Watch List and the DPRK again is rated the globe's worst religious persecutor. There has been a slight opening for some private economic activity in recent years, but it remains painfully small and may not survive the execution of Kim's Uncle, Jang Song-taek, who was thought to be a proponent of economic reform.
Nevertheless, cultural and sports exchanges should be encouraged. Americans would gain a small window into the Hermit Kingdom, as well as an equally restricted opportunity to share unscripted moments with individual North Koreans. When I visited years ago I was usually accompanied by a driver, interpreter, and handler. But there were occasions when I was alone with one or another. And such opportunities are more frequent with larger groups which involve more local officials.
Private engagement of this kind may help influence North Koreans who might play a leadership role in the future. There is no evidence that the North is about to collapse, despite the ongoing political purge in Pyongyang. However, Jang's execution suggests fear, even desperation, which means something is very wrong in paradise. The family dynasty will not last forever and may implode sooner rather than later. It would be better for the U.S. if more North Koreans see Americans and realize that they do not match the demons of regime propaganda.
In fact, the U.S. government also would benefit from engagement. Washington should offer to establish consular relations, creating a window into the "Hermit Kingdom" and an official presence that could intercede when Americans are arrested, as is becoming more common. That doesn't mean restarting nuclear negotiations -- there is no evidence that Kim has the slightest interest in giving up the only reason most countries pay any attention to the DPRK. But America should try to open the door, however slightly, to Pyongyang.
Thus, Rodman's trips are not objectionable in the abstract. Let his team of washed up NBA players journey to Pyongyang. And then let the North send its team to America.
What Rodman got wrong was so shamelessly sucking up to the "young general." Calling Kim his friend and friend for life, singing happy birthday to him, and seemingly endorsing the dictator and dictatorial system were grotesque. No doubt, the player might be acting strategically, believing that lavishing praise on Kim would ensure Rodman's access. Still, extravagantly flattering the head of a blood-drenched system was indecent and embarrassing.
Rodman need not publicly denounce Kim. But he could go about his business, quietly polite to North Korean officials and restrained when responding to American journalists. He could simply say he went to the DPRK for sports, not politics, and then shut up -- though, admittedly, that would be completely out of character for him.
The basketball great even glimpsed a small truth about l'affaire de Kenneth Bae. The Christian missionary obviously is a man of courage and conviction. And the government's relentless persecution of religious believers is a human rights outrage. There was nothing wrong with "what Kenneth Bae did," as Rodman suggested, that justifies the former's imprisonment.
However, Bae knew the risks he was taking. He chose to visit the North and, apparently, violate North Korean law by engaging in evangelism. He knew arrest and imprisonment would result if he was caught. Unlike the hapless 85-year-old American tourist who found himself detained and accused of war crimes more than six decades ago, Bae intentionally though bravely put himself at risk.
As a result, there's no reason to expect others, like Rodman, to make Bae's release a centerpiece of their trips. Rodman's response when pressed on the issue, "that's not my job," was callous, not outrageous. Still, basic decency should have caused the player to make some effort on the missionary's behalf.
In fact, an indirect approach to Bae's plight likely would have been most effective. Rodman could have cited his obvious commitment, despite significant criticism at home, to draw the U.S. and North closer together, but explained that Bae's continued imprisonment impeded that effort. He could disclaim any knowledge of or judgment in the case -- which everyone would believe, given his goofy persona -- but advocate Bae's release as a good will gesture. He could emphasize that the best way for the DPRK to combat negative stereotypes would be to resolve the case.
Rodman is a convenient lightening rod. And there is much about him, especially his North Korean antics, to criticize.
Nevertheless, he isn't completely wrong. "Sports diplomacy" is useful, though its impact in the North likely will be modest at best. And courageous people who get arrested after intentionally challenging repressive governments shouldn't expect everyone else, including nonpolitical actors on nonpolitical trips, to be equally courageous in making the release of political prisoners a priority.
North Korea is a great human tragedy. And we should hope that the next informal ambassador to the DPRK is someone less prone to inane outbursts. Nevertheless, Dennis Rodman is better than nothing. Not much better, but still better as long as Washington adopts a policy of ineffective isolation.