The latest chapter in the “The Ballad of Jong-un and Dennis” unfolded Sunday with Dennis Rodman’s appearance on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” In an interview about the ex-NBA star’s trip last week to Pyongyang, Stephanopoulos asked Rodman some logical questions about his overly enthusiastic embrace of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, such as, “Were you aware of his threats to destroy the United States and his regime’s horrendous record on human rights?” Rodman’s responses were predictably lame, peppered with weasley phrases like “I don’t condone that, I hate the fact that he’s doing that.”
But as Stephanopoulos noted in his intro to the interview, “Rodman now has more first-hand impressions of Kim than any other American,” including anyone in the U.S. government. So in the spirit of an intelligence-gathering debriefing, let us review some of the tidbits of information that Rodman shared with ABC:
1. “The kid’s only 28 years old.”
When Kim Jong-un emerged as his father’s likely successor, North Korea watchers were stumped about his age. By the time he assumed power in late 2011, most believed he was in his late 20s. Last December, Kim Jong-il’s ex-sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto confirmed after a reunion with Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang that the North Korean leader was born on Jan. 8, 1983, which would make him 30. Why did Rodman repeatedly tell Stephanopoulos that Kim is 28? Maybe that’s what Kim told him himself. Or maybe Rodman has his facts mixed up. I’m going with the sushi chef on this one.
2. “He wants Obama to do one thing: call him.”
You’d think that Kim Jong-un and his handlers would know enough not to say something like that to a U.S. visitor – even if that visitor isn’t a diplomat but an ex-basketball player – unless they want that message to be delivered. Does that mean Kim is ready to hold substantive talks with President Obama?
Probably not. Just a few months after Kim succeeded his late father, the U.S. reached a food-aid-for-nuke-freeze deal with North Korea, only for Pyongyang to torpedo the deal just weeks later with its announced intention to launch a satellite into space. After the humiliating failure of that launch, North Korea pressed on with a successful launch later in the year and its widely condemned third nuclear test in February, despite under-the-radar efforts by the Obama administration to maintain a dialogue with Pyongyang. For Kim to claim that he wants to speak with Obama just weeks after thumbing his nose at the world with the nuke test is just par for the course.
3. “‘I don’t want to do war.’ He said that to me.”
Ditto the above.
4. “He loves basketball.”
We knew that already. But what we didn’t quite appreciate until Rodman’s visit was the depth of Kim’s enthusiasm for the game. It was startling how North Korea’s supreme leader allowed himself to be seen spending so much time with a foreigner who wasn’t a fellow head of state. Some commentators have argued that Pyongyang viewed Rodman’s visit as a propaganda coup, pointing out how state-run media covered his visit to the Juche Tower and the Arch of Triumph.
But I don’t believe that’s the main thing that motivated Kim to give his blessing to the trip. Most North Koreans have never heard of Rodman. And celebrating the visit of a famous American would seem to run counter to the country’s shrill efforts to paint the U.S. as warmongers and the “sworn enemy of the Korean people.” Rather, I think the foremost thought on Kim’s mind was simply, “Holy sh*t, I’m gonna get to meet the Worm!!”
Whatever propaganda value there was to be had from Rodman’s visit would have been the same without the bro-tastic scenes of Kim and the NBA Hall of Famer sitting together to watch a game, knocking back some drinks and embracing each other. The North Korean media’s over-the-top coverage of Rodman’s visit did not come off as a Stalinist’s regime’s attempt to squeeze propaganda value out of a prominent foreigner. Rather, it seemed to reflect a young basketball-crazed kid’s unfettered excitement over getting to hang out with one of his idols – a kid who just happens to have a country’s entire media apparatus at his disposal to project whatever message he wants. And that message clearly seemed to be, “AM I THE SH*T OR WHAT?”
Does that mean the White House should replace Glyn Davies, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, with Scottie Pippen? Well, no. But Kim’s ardor for b-ball, particularly the Chicago Bulls, does provide genuine insight into the guy’s passions and what makes him tick. If Washington ever finds itself in a dangerous stand-off with Pyongyang, I’d bet some wag in the State Department will joke that they should secretly offer Kim a one-on-one training session with Michael Jordan if he agrees to back off. And that suggestion will be made only half in jest.
5. “He’s very humble.”
Rodman contradicts his own observation by saying seconds later that, “He loves power. He loves control.” And of course he makes no mention of the Kim family’s oppressive cult of personality, the defense of which has brought unspeakable suffering to millions of North Koreans. But one particularly curious aspect of Rodman’s visit was that Kim didn’t block the participation of Vice, the media company that organized and filmed the trip for an HBO series that’s debuting in April. Vice has previously produced scabrous documentaries about North Korea. They weren’t terribly sophisticated, but they were suffused with an appealing f*ck-you attitude toward North Korea officialdom that you’d think would get them barred from the country permanently.
So why would Kim allow a Vice film crew (if not its founder Shane Smith) back into the country? Clearly Rodman’s inclusion in the package played a major role. But perhaps it also reflects an occasional – if clearly selective – willingness by Kim to overlook transgressions by foreigners who have crossed his regime. The last documented instance was his unexpected reunion last year with Kenji Fujimoto, his father’s ex-sushi chef. After serving as Kim Jong-il’s personal chef for more than a decade – during which he became close with Kim Jong-un – Fujimoto fled North Korea in 2001 and went on to write a tell-all book about his experience. And yet Kim invited him back to Pyongyang for a two-week visit last summer.
6. “What I did was history.”
Because Rodman was the first American to get acquainted with the young leader of the world’s newest nuclear power, you have to grant him that.