Dennis Rodman is headed back to North Korea to help train its Olympic basketball team for an invitational game to be staged in Pyongyang early next year, in spite of the political drama currently unfolding the isolated nation.
Last week, leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle and supposed mentor, Jang Song Thaek, was purged, quickly executed and publicly shamed on state-controlled media. Days after North Korea confirmed Jang’s death, Rodman, the Hall of Fame NBA player, announced his return to the pariah nation, which will be his third trip there this year. Rodman embarked on his Pyongyang trip on Monday to work with the national team before the exhibition game scheduled for Jan. 8.
“Yes, I’m going to North Korea to train the basketball team,” Rodman told the Associated Press in a telephone call. “I’m going to bring American players over there. Yes, I am. I’m going to be the most famous person in the world when you see American people holding hands and hoping the doors can be opened. If they can. If they can. If they can. I’m going, I’m going back for his birthday. Special.”
Kim Jong Un, an NBA fan since his boarding school days in Switzerland, has scheduled the star-studded event for his birthday. The game will be sponsored by British sports betting portal Paddy Power and played by a team of NBA legends, yet to be announced, against the DPRK national team. The event will draw in not only international media and North Korea’s Communist leadership, headed by Kim.
Koryo Tours, a British-run and Beijing-based tour company specializing in North Korea, has gained access to the exclusive event for 12 tourists willing to venture into the country -- quite a concern for foreigners after the recent ordeal and detention (and eventual release) of elderly Korean War veteran Merrill Newman, and the continuing detention of Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae.
In an email invitation, Koryo described the four-day trip as a mixture of its usual tourist packages with "genuine once-in-a-lifetime” experiences. The NBA "legends" will be flying in on the same flights as the tourists, giving the dozen unprecedented access to not only American stars, but North Korea’s inner circles.
The basketball match will reportedly be broadcast on national North Korean television, making it one of “the largest engagement projects ever undertaken” in the country, Koryo says. As much of a media circus and celebration of “basketball diplomacy” the event looks to be, the issues of North Korea's repression and war-mongering remain.
Rodman has been criticized by most of the American media for his relationship with his “good friend” Kim Jong Un, and failing to use his position to talk to Pyongyang officials about North Korea’s abysmal human rights record. Aside from widespread reports of famine, defectors frequently report imprisonment of whole families, executions and beatings, among other atrocities.
The Guardian is reporting that Paddy Power also has come under fire for sponsoring the game, despite claiming it does not “endorse or support” the North Korean regime. But not everyone is as critical. Daniel Pinkston, the International Crisis Group’s North Korea expert, told the Guardian that blame shouldn’t be placed on Paddy Power and Rodman.
“Someone might say that Dennis Rodman provides political legitimacy to the regime, or it can be treated as a propaganda coup. I think that’s greatly exaggerated,” Pinkston said in the report. “If you have a former president of the United States, that factor might be much greater. But someone like Dennis Rodman can’t do that. He can’t lift sanctions—he doesn’t’ have that power or authority.”