So what's wrong with Rodman's basketball diplomacy? Plenty, says a former ambassador

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: And speaking of hair raising winter sports stories, former basketball star Dennis Rodman visited a ski resort in North Korea today. It was part of his controversial trip to the rogue Stalinist nation, a trip that I'm sure you've heard also included this.

Dennis Rodman: Happy birthday to you.

Werman: Rodman there doing his best Marilyn Monroe for North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un. Rodman's birthday gift to Kim was a bizarre hoops game starring himself and a bunch of other NBA retirees versus a North Korean team. The North Koreans won by the way. We wondered what real impact, good or bad, Rodman's self styled basketball diplomacy is having, so we called Nicholas Burns, who knows a thing or two about diplomacy and basketball. Burns is a former top state department official and ambassador. He also teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School and is a basketball junkie. So, Nick, this is Rodman's fourth trip to North Korea, what do you make of all this?

Nicholas Burns: Well, I must say I find this whole episode of Dennis Rodman embracing one of the most brutal dictators in the world frankly disgraceful. It's very ill advised and I think it's a mistake that's gonna stay with Rodman for a very long time because he's making a basic mistake here. He's overlooking and disregarding the brutality of a dictator.

Werman: Based on what you know about Dennis Rodman, does this surprise you? I mean it's really the first time he's ever taken any political stand it seems.

Burns: I don't know him personally. He was obviously a great basketball player for the Chicago Bulls. He was a big part of their success in the '90s, but he's, he's really betrayed, I think, well some real ignorance of politics in East Asia. And he's making a mistake that's hurting the United States. And Marco, I contrast this with say the ping pong diplomacy with China.

Werman: Right, I was gonna ask you about that because Jessie Jackson on CNN yesterday compared this basketball diplomacy to ping pong in China, or the Harlem Globetrotters going to the Soviet Union and whistling Sweet Georgia Brown. And he pointed out no one really knew at the time how those efforts would work, so do you think people are not being open minded enough about what Rodman might actually achieve unwittingly even?

Burns: I think that Rodman has gone to a place that he shouldn't go with the North Koreans, and you contrast it with what the ping pong diplomacy accomplished with China: when the American National Ping Pong team went to China in the early 1970s, we had not had diplomatic relations with the Chinese for 20 years. They broke the ice. It was sports diplomacy and it was a very important even that began to allow the Chinese and Americans to talk to each other, but the US team did not embrace Mau, but they did do something important...they were A-political. The line that Dennis Rodman has crossed is that he's become political. And he has essentially thrown his support, his personal support to one of the most odious figures in modern politics, which I don't think is right, to say that what he is doing is somehow int he tradition of some of the people in the past who have done a lot of good breaking down barriers through sports.

Werman: How much is this freaking out the North Korea specialists in the state department? I would guess that it's got to be tantalizing on one hand because of the promise that somehow Rodman might open the tap to new information about a place we know little about, but then again it's totally unpredictable, isn't it?

Burns: Well, there is always that possibility that he might find out something about the personality or the personal life of Kim Jong-un that could possibly be useful to the state department because it's a very opaque regime, but the United States does have the capacity to talk to the North Korea government. We do that regularly. We don't usually at all agree with them, but there isn't an absence of communication that Dennis Rodman needs to fix.

Werman: Nick, on a practical note, can any American citizen travel anywhere they want, assuming they have the proper visa and arrangement with the destination country? I mean is there ever a situation where the state department would say, for example, no you can't and you will not go to North Korea?

Burns: Yes, there have been times in the past several decades where the United States government and many administrations have said that American citizens are not permitted to travel to a certain country and for very good reasons. He apparently has arranged his visas to North Korea. I don't think the state department has objected on those grounds, but I think they've objected quite rightly and wisely on political grounds. I think the state department would like to see American citizens do the right thing when they travel and this is clearly not the right thing to excuse a dictatorship.

Werman: Nick Burns, thanks so much for your thoughts.

Burns: Thank you.

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