SEOUL, South Korea — It is day three of Dennis Rodman’s surprise visit to North Korea, where today he became the first American to meet Kim Jong Un.
Earlier, the NBA Hall of Famer and three members of the Harlem Globetrotters played an exhibition match against the country’s top basketball players this evening.
The delegation will appear in a documentary for the HBO television show “VICE,” first set to air in April, and is visiting tourist sites and leading basketball trainings. They’ll stay until March 4, although Rodman will reportedly depart on an earlier day.
But this isn’t all about “basketball diplomacy.” With his nose studs, tattoos, and one-time penchant for wearing a wedding dress, Rodman’s trip could be one of many carefully planned attempts by the government to lighten up North Korea.
In a city full of white, blockish apartment complexes, “the government is trying to bring more color to Pyongyang,” said Leonid Petrov, a North Korea expert at the Australian National University. “They’re also sending a message to the North Korea people” that Americans aren’t just enemy soldiers on propaganda posters, but that the US is a diverse nation, he said.
At the same time, the regime is making an overture to US citizens. “They’re saying, ‘we’re not monsters, we’re not all about nuclear tests and missile launches,’” he added. “The American people are welcome in North Korea. They have a lot in common with North Koreans even if the nuclear program is non-negotiable.”
So the visit could be a carefully planned theatric, balancing off the government’s war threats with a fun side.
That would explain the timing about two months after the visit of Google CEO Eric Schmidt in early January — because technology and science are also respected in North Korea, Petrov said.
Kim Jong Un is probably in need of some people-to-people diplomacy. On Feb. 12, the country carried out its third nuclear test, thought to use a more powerful warhead than the previous two tested in 2006 and 2009. On Tuesday, when Rodman arrived, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) issued a statement promising the US “death by merciless strikes.”
So how would regular North Koreans react to Dennis Rodman, with his imposing height and flamboyant style, in a country with 28 state-approved hairstyles?
One answer: They’d “frown on him because he looks too much like ‘nalari’[a delinquent or punk] and an alien,” said North Korean defector Kim Seok-hoon, 45, in Seoul.
The North Korean Sports Ministry invited the Globetrotters one month ago, reports the Chinese state news agency, Xinhua.
“Typically, higher level delegations are not treated as regular tourists but rather as diplomatic guests,” said Andrea Lee, the New York-based president of Uri Tours, the tour operator that booked flights and advised Rodman’s delegation on the trip.
Yep, North Korean politicians love basketball
It’s understandable why Kim Jong Un wanted to meet “the Worm,” as Rodman is called. The basketball player was a childhood idol; one photograph even captures Kim Jong Un as an adolescent in the 1990s, wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey with Rodman’s number, 91.
For North Korean elites, basketball is a popular sport stretching back to the days of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, who was also a fan. In 2000, then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright presented him with a basketball signed by Michael Jordan.
The ball has been exalted at a museum on Myonghyang Mountain, 100 miles north of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. It’s placed there along with Mao Zedong’s armored train car and Josef Stalin’s bulletproof limousine, giving the ball an iconic status.
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Strangely, tour guides reportedly claim the gifts were offered by foreign diplomats and celebrities in honor of the North Korean ideology of self-reliance, or “Juche.”
The isolated country is also home to a national basketball team that occasionally plays in the Asian Games, a sort of regional Olympics.
The country’s most famous player, Michael Ri — who took his first name after Michael Jordan — is even thought to be the world’s tallest basketball pro at 7 feet 8.5 inches. “Given the love of basketball by the current and past leaders of the DPRK, we have no doubt that the DPRK warmly welcomed Dennis Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters,” Lee said.
Psy, however, may feel differently. Rodman seems to have piqued ire by conflating North and South Korea in a tweet that has already gone viral: