Basketball Diplomacy Revisited: North Korea Proposes Regional Tournament

After former NBA star Dennis Rodman made headlines sitting courtside with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at a friendly basketball game in Pyongyang, the world was exposed to the leader’s affinity for the game. Now, North Korea is floating the idea of participating in a regional basketball tournament involving both Koreas, China and Japan.

According to South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, a source is saying that North Korean state broadcast company KRT approached the Malaysia's Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union with the idea of possibly jointly sponsoring and hosting a basketball tournament featuring players from all four countries.

If true, this could be another signal of the North’s willingness to engage in diplomacy with South Korea, with which it is still technically at war. The basketball proposal was reportedly made last month in particular because of the leader’s interest in the sport; the country also hosted the Harlem Globetrotters along with Rodman in March.

The ABU has a Korean connection as well, currently being led by Seoul's former Korean Broadcasting System President Kim In-Kyu. The ABU did not divulge details about the proposal when asked but did confirm it was contacted by the North Korean media group.

“I can’t give you details,” one ABU employee based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, told Chosun Ilbo. “But it’s true that there were talks between the ABU and KRT. But no progress has been made in this regard.”

The unnamed employee also mentioned that KBS President Kim and North Korean Chairman Cha Sung-Su have been in touch. In preparation for the London Olympics last year, Kim met Cha in Pyongyang to discuss the broadcasting of the Summer Games for citizens in the capital city. “Since then, the ABU has been in contact with KRT once in a while.”

Opening up channels for diplomacy using sports is not a new idea. In the 1970s, "ping pong diplomacy," the matches between American and Chinese players, established a common bond between the two nations that then did not have diplomatic relations. The sports exchange was a foundation that led to the beginning of repaired relations between the U.S. and China, prompting the historical visit of President Richard Nixon to Beijing. 

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