Piercings, green hair, tattoos and all, Dennis Rodman was spotted maneuvering—at a towering six foot, seven inches—through Beijing airport yesterday en route to North Korea for the second time this year. Fresh on the heels of his bizarre media stunt in Pyongyang earlier this year, “The Worm” is once again wriggling his way into the Hermit Kingdom to rub elbows with his “friend for life,” the North’s dictator Kim Jong-Un.
After that visit, Rodman called Kim an “awesome kid,” adding, “I love him – the guy’s awesome.”
As happened when he made his first trip—in conjunction with Vice Media which later turned the trip into content for its HBO series—a bevy of media reports have taken their best stab about Rodman’s intentions. But they’re anyone’s guess.
Possibilities put forth for the reasons behind the second trip—controversially being sponsored by Irish booking agency Paddy Power—have included an attempt at negotiating for the release of Korean-American Christian missionary Kenneth Bae, who was sentenced to serve 15 years of “compulsory labor” in a prison camp this year, to talking about hoops with his number one fan, the nation’s Dear Leader.
Bae was arrested in the northeastern port city of Rason in late 2012 on charges that he had allegedly smuggled in “propaganda materials,” including a National Geographic documentary on life in North Korea. He does not suffer alone; an estimated 150,000-200,000 prisoners are currently locked away in labor camps.
When questioned by reporters in Beijing, Rodman was quick to dismiss anything too grandiose. “I’m not a diplomat,” he said. I'm there to go there and just have a good time, sit with (Kim) and his family, and that's pretty much it.”
Speaking with Reuters before embarking on his plane in Beijing, he continued: “I’m not going to North Korea to discuss freeing Kenneth Bae. I’ve come out here to see my friend—and I want to talk about basketball. I'm just trying to go over there to meet my friend Kim, the Marshal. Try to start a basketball league over there, something like that.”
While he may very well plan to discuss “something like that” with Kim, it should be noted that in May the former Chicago Bull digitally nudged Kim, tweeting, “I’m calling on the Supreme Leader of North Korea or as I call him ‘Kim’, to do me a solid and cut Kenneth Bae loose.”
More recently, he told the Huffington Post, “I gave (Kim) a great indication of when I'm going to Beijing soon—that’s just a hop, skip and a jump from North Korea. So basically, you know, I'm pretty sure I'll be talking to him soon.”
He continued: “I will definitely ask for Kenneth Bae's release. I will say, ‘Marshal, why is this guy held hostage?’ I could try and soften it up in that way. If the Marshal says, ‘Dennis, you know, do you want me to let him loose?’ and then if I actually got him loose—and I'm just saying this out the blue—I’d be the most powerful guy in the world.”
He didn’t stop there. Last week, Rodman spoke of his quest to obtain the Nobel Peace Prize, a “long-shot bid” says The Wall Street Journal, putting it lightly. Hopes for a call from the Swedish Academy aside, any efforts to extract Bae—who appeared emaciated in a video released in July—could meet with a tepid response at best. Last week Pyongyang called off a planned humanitarian visit by Robert King, a U.S. special envoy on North Korean human rights issues who was anticipated to negotiate for Bae’s release. Kim’s regime cited a “grave provocation” by Washington for its decision to mobilize bombers with nuclear capabilities during recent military drills in Seoul.
While the possibility that one of Kim’s b-ball idols may be able to step in where U.S. state-sanctioned efforts have failed, it wouldn’t be the first time. The oppressive state has released U.S. citizens following similar soft outreach efforts by ex-president Bill Clinton, who brought home journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee in 2009, notes Anthony Kuhn of NPR.
Rodman is being hosted by North Korea’s Ministry of Physical Culture and Sport. While Rodman says he plans to catch up with Kim “pretty soon,” the ministry has not confirmed whether the “Marshall” will meet with the ex-NBA bad boy or not. Where this visit goes from here is anyone’s guess.
Some analysts have expressed their doubts, suggesting that Pyongyang may in fact be using Rodman as bait to win diplomatic concessions over its nuclear weapons program, estimated to amount to a small cache of devices.
This all begs the question: Who’s playing who?