This Tuesday morning, accompanied by the subject header “This is not an April Fools Day joke,” we were informed that Dennis Rodman had arrived in North Korea. My first question, Is he defecting? One could easily imagine Mr. Rodman making his way up Luke Herman’s North Korean Leadership Tracker. It turned out that Rodman was not defecting, just accompanying the lovable rabble-rousers at Vice for some good old fashioned basketball diplomacy. The story quickly blew up with major publications contacting experts for comment. Marcus Noland’s stated his position by saying, “I am all for it. No one has anything to lose on this one, so why not? If Kim Jong-un is half the 1990s NBA fan he is cracked up to be, Dennis Rodman could have more impact on US-DPRK relations than say John Kerry. And look better in a dress.” It should be noted Marcus said that before Rodman apparently quipped that Kim Jong-Un had “a friend for life” in the hall of famer. Throughout the week, the story continued to grow and develop new angles.
First, there was the question of how Vice pulled this off. Four years ago, Vice produced the Vice Guide to North Korea travel documentary where Vice founder Shane Smith and crew visited North Korea as tourists. The final product was an account that cut through the propaganda and was hardly friendly to the North Korean regime. After that, Vice and Shane Smith followed up with another documentary on North Korea’s Siberian labor camps. Had the North Koreans never seen the videos? Initial reports led us to believe that Shane Smith was actually on this trip as well, but it turned out that correspondent Ryan Duffy was the group leader.
Another angle was how would the story be covered inside North Korea? Would state media cover the story? They sure did. At least three stories were run on KCNA as well as a front page story in the Rodung Sinmun accompanied by dozens of photos of Rodman and Kim Jong Un together. Another curious angle regarding media coverage comes via Adam Cathcart of SinoNK and Queen’s University. He points out that the AP bureau in Pyongyang played only a minimal role in the reporting on this story. The only photo credited directly to AP was from Rodman’s arrival at the airport. They weren’t in attendance at the basketball game leaving Vice’s Jason Mojica to snap the first pictures of Rodman and Kim together. Given the implicit importance of Rodman’s visit for US-DPRK relations, it does seem strange that the AP was such a minor player.
How would the US government respond to the story? Bill Richardson and Eric Schmidt’s trip shortly after the missile launch drew a rebuke from the State Department. Would Rodman’s trip draw similar ire? Based on yesterday’s press briefing with acting deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell, it appears the State Department is reticent to discuss the trip. While Victoria Nuland was more than willing to express her disapproval of the Schmidt trip, reporters couldn’t get a word about the State Departments position on Rodman. Ventrell’s most detailed response was, “I mean, look. I really refer you to – we don’t have any details on all aspects of his trip. We weren’t in touch with him before on who all they were going to meet with. It’s not something we’ve taken a position on. We have not been in touch with them at all throughout this process.” Hardly a firm response.
Wrapping up, how did the trip go? Apparently Rodman and company had significant access to Kim Jong Un, attending a borderline state dinner with the great leader following the basketball game where Rodman sat beside Kim and his wife. Tollowing the game, Rodman apparently stated that Kim had “a friend for life.” Ryan Duffy reportedly invited Kim to New York to tour the Vice headquarters, which was greeted by laughter of course. The headline for Vice’s current story on the subject reads “North Korea has a friend in Dennis Rodman and Vice.” Something tells me all these pleasantries may have something to with the fact that Rodman and members of the Vice staff are still in the country and would prefer not to spend the rest of their lives in Camp #25. The Vice-produced mini documentary based on this trip won’t be airing until April when the new HBO series VICE premiers. Based on Shane Smith’s previous work on the DPRK, it is quite possible we will hear a more balanced side to the story then.