Sport & Culture

Katy Perry for North Korea?

Could the U.S. leverage its pop culture influence to secure a breakthrough with Kim Jong-un’s regime?

Despite his love of French champagne and Italian sport cars, Kim Jong-il made North Korea an insulated society more committed to guns than butter. Indeed, under Kim, the country aggressively exported advanced missile technologies in defiance of international will.

Kim Jong-il’s love of booze, women and basketball is the least of North Korea’s state secrets. And, if Kim shared his love of sports and glitter with his son, the “great successor,” Kim Jong-un, then an icon-heavy diplomatic mission could prove successful for re-engaging North Korea.

The traditional diplomatic team of a former U.S. president and former secretary of state coupled with cultural icons like Katy Perry and Michael Jordan could offer the most effective mission for the Pyongyang crowd.

Flashy pop culture figures and sports icons may not negotiate an armistice or prevent war, but they could be valuable levers to get top diplomats into the right place at the right time while lowering the stress of high-stakes diplomacy.

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During most of Kim’s reign, he focused on cultural affairs with self-aggrandizing themes, rather than driving North Korea into armed conflict. He “wrote books, produced and starred in movies,” Albright writes in her memoir, Madam Secretary, about American impressions. Before her 2000 mission, he “was reputed to be an otherworldly recluse, more interested in making and watching movies than in governing.”

One of the United States’ greatest cultural exports and original California girl Katy Perry could headline a diplomatic team. For years, Kim made the Hermit Kingdom a destination for flashy Western-imitation goods and movies, and no other American-made “product” is as flashy as Katy Perry.

In October 2006, the Union-Tribune’s Mark Zeigler called Kim the “oddest fan” in relation to his love of the NBA. During the Korean missile test crisis, Republican presidential hopeful and then-Sen. Rick Santorum remarked: “Kim doesn’t want to die.  He wants to watch NBA basketball.”

At the end of her trip, Albright presented Kim Jong-il with a basketball signed by NBA Superstar, Michael Jordan.  The 2011 NBA lockout has taught us that we need to reach back at least that far to anyone in the NBA with diplomatic skills. In addition to Jordan’s skill on the hardwood, he also has some other credits North Korea, namely his acting role in Space Jam

While Perry and Jordan would be the team’s headliners, the diplomatic core of the team would be Clinton and Albright. Clinton has already demonstrated success in post-presidential negotiating when he secured the release of two American journalists. Albright has recounted the warm welcome given by Kim Jong-il, and notes that had the administration had more time, Clinton may well have met directly with Kim Jong-il.

The key to success in North Korea is time. In 1994, President Clinton sent former President Jimmy Carter to North Korea and Carter was able to establish the first dialogue in forty years.  Unfortunately, time ran out on the Clinton administration, but President Barack Obama still has a short timeframe in which to couple diplomatic leaders who made significant headway a decade ago with powerhouse cultural and sports icons that any twenty-something would have to meet.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons, propaganda machine, disregard for embargoes and general disinterest in appropriate international behavior means that efforts to address the Kim regime require creative solutions. Any mission sent to North Korea needs to be flashy enough to attract attention and powerful enough to establish an agreed upon framework for future talks with the administration. 

Why would Kim Jong-un be interested in an American mission now, regardless of star power?

The Pacific grows smaller every day. New free trade agreements link the U.S. and South Korea, Panama and Colombia, and an Obama-lead framework promoting a regional free trade agreement amongst Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) members is driving further integration.  These agreements strengthen ties and increase security and economic growth without guns.

From Ping Pong diplomacy to the Plastic People of the Universe, sports, music and cultural diplomacy has assisted in opening up closed regimes in the past. Mobilizing change in North Korea will take time and a similar brand of creativity. But surely it’s worth the U.S. considering leveraging its monopoly on pop culture for a North Korea breakthrough.

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James Lewis is a former senior policy analyst at a Washington think tank. Aimee Dineiro engages corporate America through nonprofit marketing campaigns.