The Role Of 'Basketball Diplomacy' In North Korea

Jan 9, 2014

When former basketball star Dennis Rodman implied to CNN that Kenneth Bae, a Lynnwood, Wash., man imprisoned in North Korea, had committed a crime, Bae’s sister lashed out.

“He is playing games with my brother’s life,” Terri Chung wrote in a statement this week to news organizations. “There is no diplomacy, only games, and at my brother’s expense.”

Rodman has since apologized, saying he was drunk, and Bae’s family has accepted the apology. Bae, a tour operator based in China, has been imprisoned for 14 months. He spent some of that time in hospital after falling ill at a work camp.

The flap over Rodman’s comments has highlighted how little is known about North Korea. KUOW’s Ross Reynolds spoke with Charles Armstrong, a professor of Korean studies at Columbia University, about the success of what Rodman termed “basketball diplomacy.”   

“In the past, the US has worked with sports and cultural figures for reaching out to countries which did not have good relations with the US, but Rodman is doing this on his own, and I have to say, not doing a very good job of it,” Armstrong said. “It’s unfortunate, because he could have done some very important work in improving relations with US and North Korea.”

Rodman, Armstrong said, is being a free agent, but he could also help the US as he is the only American to have met North Korea's "supreme leader," Kim Jung Un. The US has tried to get intelligence from Rodman about his trips to North Korea. (Kim Jung Un, believed to be in his early 30s, is a fan of Rodman’s from the basketball player’s heyday as a power forward for the Chicago Bulls.)

Information about North Korea has been slow to emerge in the 50 years since the Kim family has held tight control over the country. Most of the information comes from defectors, who escape to South Korea and China, where they tell stories of desperate famine, slave labor, forced abortions, infanticide and prison camps.

The sanctions imposed on North Korea by the international community are strict, but that hasn’t compelled the country to admit or address human rights violations.

“It seems to me that the only way that we can make progress is get that country to open up a little bit more, so that we can get a better sense of what is going on, and get North Korea into a position where that pressure might have some effect,” Armstrong said.