SEOUL, South Korea — On Tuesday, bad-boy retired basketball player Dennis Rodman landed in North Korea for a second meeting with his unusual buddy, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.
In February, the flamboyant star became the first American known to have met Kim Jong Un while in North Korea with an HBO documentary crew. This time, the reasons for this five-day visit are veiled in mystery.
Call it a flip-flop. Last week, “the Worm,” as he’s known, said he would urge North Korea to release an American prisoner, Kenneth Bae, a Christian missionary reportedly in bad health in North Korea. In April, Bae was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for trying to overthrow the government.
But Tuesday, Rodman swapped his position, declining to answer questions about whether he’ll seek freedom for the inmate.
Instead, Rodman gave a statement in his usual eccentric style. “I want to try to keep the communication going, as far as like, I just want to go over there to meet my friend Kim, the marshal, and try to, you know, start a new basketball league, stuff like that,” Rodman told reporters in Beijing, before taking off on his flight to Pyongyang.
Rodman added that he’s not a diplomat, apparently distancing himself from Washington and urging onlookers to withhold high hopes. Earlier, in May, the aging baller even took a swipe at US President Barack Obama, saying he “can’t do shit” with the world’s most militarized nation.
But look a little deeper, and the subtle political whims of North Korea could actually prompt the garrison state to release Bae to, of all people, Rodman.
The big incentive?
“If North Korea were to release Bae, it would achieve an effective snubbing of the State Department,” said Sung-yoon Lee, a Korean studies professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Boston.
Of course, the scenario is only one possibility. By inviting Rodman, North Korea could already be taking a diplomatic shot at its sworn enemy, Washington. The regime is receiving the athlete days after it withdrew an invitation on Saturday to Bob King, an American negotiator who was supposed to secure Bae’s release.
It’s not an unusual step for the regime. “North Korea has rescinded things like this in the past, eleventh hour, but has gone ahead and released people,” Lee told GlobalPost. Bae has been detained for 10 months, longer than other former American prisoners since the 1990s. The time could be approaching for his discharge.
Others think that, yes, Rodman of all people may wield more clout with Kim Jong Un that many assume. “Dennis Rodman may not be a professional diplomat,” said a senior Western diplomat in Seoul, asking not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press. “But he got Kim Jong Un to come out and talk while nobody in Washington has been able to do the same. That says a lot.”
But don’t get your hopes up that North Korea will open to the world.
Rodman and Kim Jong Un will probably partake in a light, fun meeting, says Lee, and not deliberate over politics. Still, Rodman might bring up the country’s nuclear program and the existence of six political prison camps that house some 150,000 people, he added.
“Kim Jong Un would be sure to brush off these concerns,” he said.
Kim Jong Un, who attended high school in Switzerland, was a childhood fan of the 1990s Chicago Bulls — the dream team that consisted of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman.
The HBO film crew from VICE originally approached Michael Jordan for the February trip, but he declined. The team then turned to Rodman, opening the path to an odd camaraderie between straight-laced dictator and the garish Bulls power forward.