Retired basketball star Dennis Rodman visits North Korea
(CNN) — North Korea increased tensions with the U.S. by conducting an underground nuclear test last month, but the government is playing friendly with at least one American. Retired basketball star Dennis Rodman is visiting the hermit kingdom — and became the first American known to have spent time with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un.
Surrounded by fans dressed in regulation black, Rodman caught an exhibition game with his new declared “friend for life,” Supreme Leader of North Korean Kim Jong Un.
To many, the pairing of Rodman and the youthful dictator couldn’t be more bizarre.
“I think its sort of reality TV meets sports, meets diplomacy. You could not get a more bizarre figure going into a more bizarre country under the most difficult diplomatic circumstance at the official level. So it is about as bizarre as you can get,” Victor Cha, Senior Advisor for Asia, Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said.
In North Korea, dress, haircuts, travel and all other aspects of life are tightly restricted. Compare that to the free-wheeling former NBA bad boy, who isn’t too fazed by conventions.
Rodman arrived earlier this week with a vice film crew on an unofficial “basketball diplomacy” trip to an official welcome. Quickly tweeting “I come in peace. Love the people of North Korea” — the real time, or surreal time tweets made possible only days before, when the government allowed 3G connections for foreigners.
The question is, why did the famously closed off North Korea government let in Rodman and his entourage at all? One reason makes a bit of sense: basketball.
Friends of the teenage future dictator say Kim Jong Un was obsessed with the game, and in particular, the Chicago Bulls. It turns out, the Bulls are something of a family team. Kim’s eccentric father, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il was a fan, apparently.
Basketball diplomacy has been tried before. Madeline Albright gave elder Kim a ball signed by Michael Jordan to try and warm ties, but it didn’t work.
Kim Jong Il continued building up Korea’s nuclear weapons plans before he died, and younger Kim took up the mantle, ordering a third nuclear test earlier this year. It has only served to increase North Korea’s isolation — so a trip by a larger-than-life star makes sense in another way.
“The North Koreans try to use opportunities like this to congratulate themselves on their accomplishments as they see them as well as congratulate this new leadership and try to give him legitimacy on the world stage,” David McKenzie of Beijing said.
Whether basketball diplomacy in Pyongyang, which days ago called for the “miserable destruction” of the United States can warm relations with another leader famously obsessed with the game is a Hail Mary if there ever was one.