North Korea might be in the process of creating ballistic and nuclear warheads, but the U.S. has its own secret weapon: the National Basketball Association.
Dennis Rodman, the retired American Hall of Fame professional basketball player, visited North Korea this week and met with “The Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un. Rodman and his entourage, consisting of Harlem Globetrotters and a video crew from Vice media, are the only documented Americans to have met the latest North Korean leader.
Why did Kim meet with Rodman and not Google executive Eric Schmidt, who visited in January? Because he simply adores American basketball, as does the entire Kim family. A simple search yields pictures showing Kim Jong-un's brother, Kim Jong-chul, sporting a Chicago Bulls jersey while attending boarding school in Switzerland. Kim Jong-un is known to have plastered his adolescent bedroom with posters of Michael Jordan and other famous players.
The Kim family’s love affair with NBA basketball extends for decades - apparently it comes alongside autocratic rule in the family heritage package. In 1992, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited North Korea on a diplomatic visit and brought the nation’s leaders a basketball signed by Michael Jordan, which now resides in a museum.
Similarly, a meeting between American diplomat Eugene Schmiel and North Korean representatives was completely shut down for a Bulls game in 1992. During the most intense part of discussion, a North Korean director suddenly said, “Stop. No more. Michael (Jordan) and the Bulls are on TNT, and I've got to see if Scottie (Pippen) has gotten over his latest injury!”
North Korea has even attempted to send its own homegrown basketball player to play in the NBA. Ri Myung Hun (who later changed his name to Michael Ri, in honor of Michael Jordan), a 7-foot-9 center, was trained in Canada in order to compete in the NBA. But the U.S. rejected the “olive branch” basketball player, citing that allowing Ri to compete in the NBA would be a violation of the Trading with the Enemy Act. So Ri was sent home.
But Dennis Rodman’s visit to the “Hermit Kingdom” should not be taken lightly; it is one of few openings the North Korea government has shown to Western culture. As the country continues to shut itself out and buck international opinion, even that of the U.N. and its ally China, any chance for communication is one that should be taken advantage of.
Though North Korea’s propaganda media will likely spin Rodman’s visit as a tribute to Kim Jong-un, it also gives the U.S. a window to observe. As former New Mexico governor and eight-time visitor to North Korea Bill Richardson said, “Any information about Kim Jong-un, his mannerisms, his ability to speak English, his personal assessment, is valuable.”
But Rodman may not be the end of American “basketball diplomacy.”
Rodman was second choice to basketball superstar and North Korean favorite Michael Jordan. Jordan’s management team was approached in 2001 with an invitation to meet Kim Jong-il, but Jordan declined. Maybe sometime in the near future, Jordan could be convinced to visit the isolated country, even if just to attend one of the parties at the leader’s palace.
At a time when the U.S. and the international community are contemplating even stricter sanctions on North Korea, a visit from Jordan may be just the thing to warm the nation to communications, much like the Ping-Pong diplomacy with China in the 1970s.
Though the U.S. may not be able to delay the nuclear program with words or international pressure, it cannot forget the power of cultural capital. Visiting American celebrities are opportunities to show North Korea that though the U.S. may not approve of its policies or programs, our citizens are people too and are capable of communicating on a very human level.
However, if the White House wants to use this cultural capital, it must act fast. Soon, North Korea may become too dangerous for civilians to visit or it may completely shut itself off from the world entirely. If the U.S. wants to have any chance at any kind of face-to-face communication with North Korea, this may be one of its final opportunities to leverage basketball for diplomatic gain.
Michael Jordan better start reading up on nuclear policy. His time to save the world from nuclear warfare could be approaching.
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