Sport & Culture

Why Rodman’s Trip Isn’t Ping Pong Diplomacy

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Sport & Culture

Why Rodman’s Trip Isn’t Ping Pong Diplomacy

Dennis Rodman may be winning the hearts of North Korean fans, but this trip isn’t statecraft.

The bizarre, media-crazed “diplomatic” mission to North Korea by Dennis Rodman and three fellow Harlem Globetrotters has become more interesting by the day. Since arriving in Pyongyang, the emissaries have wandered well beyond the confines of the basketball court and received a highly controlled tour of North Korea’s offerings.

The visitors have rambled from state monuments and towers in central Pyongyang to the palace that is the resting place of Kim and Kim Jong Il, where North Korean state media reported that Rodman paid “high tribute.”

Rodman and Kim Jong Un sat side-by-side to watch Globetrotters and North Korean players compete on mixed teams. In photos taken during the match by VICE Media, Rodman is seen fully pierced, wearing a dark suit and sunglasses, while Kim, decked out in a blue Mao suit, sits beside him slapping his hands on the table and laughing. A can of Coca Cola prominently sits in front of Rodman on the table.

The Globetrotters delighted the audience, which “was really engaged, laughed at all of the Globetrotters’ antics and actually got super loud toward the end as the score got close,” said VICE correspondent Ryan Duffy who donned a blue “United States of America” uniform. “Most fun I’ve had in a while.”

The Americans gifted Kim with a Globetrotters uniform and the game ended in a 110-110 tie. “You have a friend for life,” Rodman reportedly told Kim in a speech to a crowd that numbered in the tens of thousands after the game.

The fun culminated at Kim Jong Un’s palace where Rodman, the Globetrotters and the VICE Media crew filming the spectacle for HBO, wined and dined on a spread that included smoked turkey and sushi. Multiple toasts were made. (Meanwhile, two-thirds of North Koreans survive on meager government handouts, with some resorting to eating grass and field mice.)

“I look at this as basketball diplomacy, the same way we had ping-pong diplomacy with China,” VICE founder Shane Smith told The New York Times. “Once you get the Globetrotters involved, I mean, how can you not smile when you see the Harlem Globetrotters?”

Smith has a point about the potential effectiveness of soft power to lower barriers. But there seems to be a commonly held misconception that Rodman is blazing a new path into North Korea where no other cultural ambassadors have gone before. Media hype aside, cultural exchange in North Korea is not new.

Beijing-based Koryo Tours, for one, has led two American basketball envoys to North Korea. The Americans led basketball camps, played at local schools and mixed with the kids. “No one as famous as Rodman of course, but the first step (toward Rodman’s trip) may have been efforts like our own,” Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours told The Diplomat.

Further, Smith’s comparison of the Rodman effort to the “ping-pong diplomacy” used to thaw U.S.-China relation is tenuous. While all of this schmoozing may look like diplomacy, in the end the U.S. government has distanced itself from the affair. Neither the State Department nor the Obama administration has communicated directly with Rodman about the effort.

“I don’t know if the DPRK is as ready as China was for such diplomacy,” Cockerell said. “Ping-pong diplomacy had the backing of the US government, albeit secretly at the time, but this project seems to not be related to the U.S. government. Generally diplomacy is required to be between state actors.”

Andray Abrahamian, Executive Director of the Choson Exchange, a Singaporean NGO that focuses on business development for young North Koreans, agreed with Cockerell’s assessment.

“I don't think it’s really comparable to the ping-pong diplomacy of the 1970s, which was organized at the highest levels of government with an explicit political goal in mind. This seems to be a far more ordinary cultural exchange.”

He added, “You have to smile at the idea of Rodman debriefing the State Department, though.”