NA’ALEHU, Hawaii — If Dennis Rodman wrecked his image with his admittedly failed attempt at “basketball diplomacy” in Pyongyang, the former NBA star’s host, Kim Jong Un, hasn’t fared much better.
It’s true that on Wednesday, before play began in the exhibition match he’d arranged, Rodman belted out a verse of “Happy Birthday” to North Korea’s 31-year-old Supreme Leader.
Or, as the official Korea Central News Agency gushed, Rodman “sang a song reflecting his reverence for Kim Jong Un, touching the spectators.”
But by being drunk during an interview with shockingly unprepared CNN host Chris Cuomo, Rodman passed up an opportunity to thwart a move to turn this into a story about how Korean-American evangelist Kenneth Bae is imprisoned in Pyongyang without charges.
(Cuomo’s version to the contrary, Bae was in fact convicted of attempting to overthrow the North Korean government. While the evidence against him may not have let to charges in the West, a video shows he infiltrated the country intending to “collapse” the government through prayer — not an escapade that the regime could be expected to take lightly.)
It’s probably not too early to add the basketball episode to a list of unsuccessful North Korean attempts at sports diplomacy. Let’s look at the two biggest items on that list, starting with a 1979 attempt to copy outright a Chinese diplomatic success.
In 1971 China had invited a US table tennis team to visit. That move would be seen as having prepared the way for President Richard Nixon’s trip to Beijing and the opening of diplomatic relations.
Eight years later, as host to the world table tennis championships, Pyongyang sought to emulate China’s “ping pong diplomacy,” inviting a US table tennis team along with several news reporters — the first large American delegation to visit since the Korean War ended in 1953.
By then, President Jimmy Carter had disappointed the North Koreans by halting his planned removal of US forces from South Korea. Pyongyang’s goal was clear: to spin a narrative that would restore the Carter withdrawal plan.
North Korean foreign policy chief Kim Yong Nam gave me the message, to pass along via the Baltimore newspaper I worked for, that Pyongyang was offering a quid pro quo: North Korea would “neither touch nor harm” US interests in South Korea, if we would withdraw our troops and support the North’s plan to form a confederacy that would reunite North and South into a single country.
Official Washington was unimpressed by the offer, pronouncing it a recycled version of the old North Korean scheme to get the US out of the way – so that the military superiority that the North then still enjoyed over the South would enable it to take over the entire peninsula.
Sports next loomed large in North Korea’s sights after South Korea won the right to host the 1988 Olympics. In 1987 two agents from Pyongyang bombed a Korean Airlines civilian airliner, killing all 115 people aboard, to send a message that Seoul would be an unsafe destination. (Chechen separatists are currently carrying out a similar terrorist campaign to disrupt the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.)
The Seoul Olympics proceeded despite the plane bombing and were an enormous success, showcasing to the world the prosperous, newly democratic South.
The Pyongyang leaders switched tactics from terror to competitive bragging, spending enormous sums to rebuild their capital and host a socialist-bloc sports-and-ideology event that they hoped would outdo the South’s efforts.
The 1989 World Festival of Students and Youth proved to be horribly timed. Communism was falling apart in Europe by then, and the youth festival began right after the Tiananmen uprising in Beijing. Those of us who went to Pyongyang for the occasion were astonished to witness European activists protesting, as they marched in the opening ceremony, against Chinese and North Korean human rights violations — a first in the supremely totalitarian-controlled country.
The 1989 event also let in a huge dose of the insidious foreign influences that in ordinary times the regime works so hard to keep from reaching its people. Pyongyang youth freaked out at the decadent music and dance to which the delegates from hipper countries exposed them.
Finally, and worst of all for the regime, there were the economic consequences: the festival bankrupted the country. If the 1979 ping pong diplomacy had been merely a failure, the 1989 festival was totally disastrous. The economy has never recovered.
It’s not hard to analyze why such efforts have failed. In 1979 the main problem was what has been a staple principle of North Korean negotiations since the time of then-ruler Kim Il Sung: Take but don’t give.
Kim’s people no doubt looked over the American delegation in hopes of finding at least a CIA agent — anyone prepared to represent the Washington government and talk with them.
The Americans, not wishing to be scammed, were not buying, so the North Koreans decided they had no one to talk to but journalists. Regardless of who carried the message, they didn’t have an offer worth conveying.
As for 1989, we can ask what was supposed to happen after the North Koreans impressed the world with the wonders of their socialist construction. Would the US sit down for talks? As in 1979, there was no sign Pyongyang had a negotiating policy more reasonable than “You lose, I win.”
But the bigger problem in 1989 was the regime’s broader preference for circuses over bread. Kim Jong Il, the second-generation ruler-to-be, was already in day-to-day charge of the country. Throughout his career Kim was heavily into showmanship directed to both domestic and foreign audiences. He largely disdained practical policy measures that would have improved his country’s economy and his people’s living standards.
The term basketball diplomacy probably is too grand for anything we can imagine to have been in the mind of the recently minted Marshal Kim Jong Un as Rodman’s big game approached.
Young Kim in the two years since he took over upon his father’s death has been aping both father and grandfather. Like them, he sees diplomacy as a zero-sum game and is not willing to negotiate seriously.
We may well doubt that, when Rodman came, Kim had any serious diplomatic goals or plans. Consider: In typical divide-and-conquer mode, as he wrapped up his dealings with the American visitors, he chose to reject a South Korean negotiation offer.
Just as significantly, young Kim has shown by his public appearances lately that the domestic policy measures he’s most eager to support are pretty much all show: building a ski slope, a water park and an equine park — each of them unlikely to be of any benefit to ordinary citizens who for decades have faced food shortages.
Any boost that Rodman gave Kim’s domestic credibility and support probably was modest. Rather, what Kim and Rodman both have mainly managed to reveal to outsiders watching the months-long development of their relationship is weirdness by association.
Veteran Asia correspondent Bradley K. Martin is the author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.”
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