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Dennis Rodman and basketball diplomacy

By Uche Onyebadi

‘PING-PONG’ diplomacy paved the way to a political rapprochement between the USA and China in the 1970s. Those were the days of China’s Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, US President Richard Nixon and his diplomatic soldier and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Now, Dennis Rodman is trying to use ‘basketball diplomacy’ as an instrument to defrost the ice-cold US-North Korean relations.

The trouble with ‘basketball diplomacy’ is that it was launched by Rodman, a former basketball star whose public image is less than flattering in the eyes of many. Even while active in basketball, Dennis was a maverick. That image still hangs around his neck. With his‘hippie’ appearance, undiplomatic language and mannerisms, inarticulate press interviews, and confessions of sometimes being under the influence of Bacchus the wine god, and being ‘stressed,’it is easy to see why there are so many skeptics of his brand of diplomacy. He has been ridiculed in several sections of the US media and some people have bluntly told him he has no business travelling to North Korea, a country once described as part of the “axis of evil” by former US President George Bush.

Rodman’s latest trip to North Korea has further infuriated his legion of critics. They are angry that Rodman went there kowtowing as he sang ‘happy birthday’ in very unrefined voice to his ‘good friend’ Kim Jung Un, the leader of the North Korean nation.

The critics are even mad that Rodman is not using his access to his good friend to discuss the possibility of gaining the release of an American, Kenneth Bae, who has been languishing in a North Korean prison for charges no one in the US really understands. But, hardly is anyone paying attention to Rodman’s repeated claims that his mission is just to open the door a little for the seeds of US-North Korean relationship to be planted, and not about the politics of freeing prisoners.

Everyone agrees that non-traditional forms of diplomacy work. But Rodman’s critics do not see his ‘basketball diplomacy’ resulting in anything tangible. They believe his trips are just designed to massage the ego of the young North Korean leader who, as the critics readily cite, has just killed his uncle in an in-house power tussle.

In short, if Rodman’s critics had their way, the ex-basket ball star’s passport should be withdrawn so as to prevent him from sneaking out of the US and into North Korean to further humiliate America before the young, politically naive and murderous egomaniac that sits at the apex of a pyramid of injustice and denial of basic freedoms in Pyongyang.

In many ways, I disagree with Rodman’s critics. Fine, Dennis is not a diplomat or even diplomatic in the way he conducts his ‘basketball diplomacy.’ But only very few can see beyond his shortcomings to note that he is sowing the seeds of future return of normalcy not just between the US and North Korea but between the North Koreans and the rest of the world. Dr. Kissinger had to undertake several secret missions to Beijing towards the restoration of diplomatic ties because in those days it was an anathema to be seen anywhere around Communist China!

Today, the ‘communist’ in China’s profile is underplayed as the US-China ties are commended even by the White House. Figures from the US Commerce Department show that as at April 2013, international visitors to the US spent some $14. 5 billion. The trade and tourism industry in the US supports about 7.7 million jobs. And, guess which country ranks at the top group of international visitors to the US? China!

Let’s face it: isn’t there a tinge of jealousy in all this? What professional diplomats and people of goodwill failed to accomplish with their suavity, Dennis Rodman has been able to accomplish with his so-called naiveté! No White House official can walk in and out of Kim Jung Un’s presence the way Rodman does. The young leader in Pyongyang may not even agree to a telephone chat with President Obama, but he sits down to cognac and engages in hugs with Dennis.

Fact is, in his more youthful days Kim Jung Un’s idolized Rodman since it has come to light that the young leader is an ardent lover of US basketball. In other words, the North Korean leader can relate to Rodman, so why not encourage that relationship to open up the doors that will eventually allow diplomats to move in and do the rest of the job?

Dennis Rodman should be allowed to march on with his ‘basketball diplomacy’. If anyone has the opportunity to coach him on better PR to accompany his ‘basketball diplomacy’ let him or her do so. The hue and cry over prematurely dragging Rodman into the quagmire of international politics will only make Kim Jung Un to firmly shut Pyongyang’s doors once more, as his father and grandfather did.


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