When I first applied to the John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations, it never, and I mean never, crossed my mind that I would be writing a piece on Dennis Rodman, aka “The Worm”. Yet here I am, writing about Dennis Rodman and North Korea. Like so many others who grew up watching the Chicago Bulls, everyone knows who Dennis Rodman is. He was the eccentric player with the crazy tattoos, the crazy hair, and an incredible ability to pull down rebounds but who could not make a layup if his life depended on it. I think he may have even tried to marry himself at one point but someone should fact check that for me. Regardless, Dennis Rodman’s recent visit to North Korea, as strange as it may sound, was somewhat thought provoking, though maybe in more of a humorous way.
I had two thoughts about this trip. The first revolved around CNN’s conjecture that Kim Jung Un probably had a poster of Dennis Rodman on his wall growing up. Of all the great players at that time in the NBA, do you really think that anyone had a poster of Dennis Rodman on his or her wall? For anyone who remembers, there was this player named Michael Jordan who most boys emulated. But for the sake of argument, maybe Kim Jung Un did have a poster of Dennis Rodman on his wall. Well, considering the attention seeking antics Rodman does, it is not the biggest surprise that Rodman may have been on Kim Jung Un’s wall.
Why anyone would want to imitate Rodman when he played with players like Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Patrick Ewing, John Stockton, and Karl Malone is confusing, should we expect anything less from North Korea? This scenario simply describes how the world views North Korea as their actions in the international system do not make sense to many. Now, since I have been so provided with basketball as an analogy, let me stretch it a bit further. Imagine a bunch of kids who are playing a basketball game. One kid calls out, “I get to be Irving ‘Magic’ Johnson,’ another Larry Bird, another Michael Jordan, and then you have the kid who calls out “I want to be Dennis Rodman.” It just simply does not make sense. Now, it may be possible that the kid is just different and Rodman’s crazy side appeals to him. If so, the kid should not be faulted for that.
Forgive me, but I am just going to take the analogy one step further and it may be a poor comparison but no analogy is perfect. Now, imagine that because the kid made the strange choice to be Rodman he is excluded from the game. This is like the West’s foreign policy towards North Korea. Of course the West’s decision entails more than not understanding North Korea; it may have something to do with its aggressive rhetoric towards our allies, pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the brutal rule of an authoritarian regime. There is also the fact that, North Korea isolates itself from the world and it is not as simple as the world alienating North Korea.
Ultimately, the lesson learned is no matter how much the Rodman kid is isolated from the basketball game; he is still going to shoot the basketball. No matter what the other kids try, he is able to shoot and even if it is an air ball every time, just like Rodman, he is doing what he wants against all impediments. In this case, the approach to the kid may need to change from trying to isolate him to maybe teaching him how to play better. North Korea has demonstrated that it has nuclear capabilities and now has the technology to launch a satellite. Maybe it is time to think of a new approach to North Korea.
My second thought is how little I was surprised. Dennis Rodman and North Korea have so much in common after all. Dennis Rodman wears a wedding dress to promote his biography and does any outlandish antic to gain media attention. North Korea is no different in the international realm. If you have not heard about North Korea in awhile, you can be sure that at some point soon you will see it in the news; either for an outlandish statement by their government or a more serious matter.
Does Rodman’s visit to North Korea means anything? CNN and other news outlets have been referring to Rodman’s visit with the Harlem Globetrotters as good will ambassador visit. Although it provides for some humorous and thought provoking insight, it means very little. However, most people know this. It does mean one thing. The secret and isolated state of North Korea continues to befuddle Western scholars. Why Rodman?
Joe is a master’s candidate at the Whitehead School and the blog writer for the Journal of Diplomacy.