Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

In North Korea, Dennis Rodman fouls out

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
March 4, 2013 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dennis Rodman returned from North Korea with an upbeat assessment
  • John Avlon says Rodman didn't take North Korea's rights violations seriously
  • He says celebrities who give aid to dictators deserve criticism
  • Avlon: Rodman's actions follow in the trail of others such as Charles Lindbergh

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He is a regular contributor to "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to "Erin Burnett OutFront" at 7 ET weeknights. He won the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' award for best online column in 2012.

New York (CNN) -- Never fear. While North Korea is a closed communist state, a rogue nuclear power that regularly threatens war and starves its own people in prison camps, Dennis Rodman has just returned from some one-on-one diplomacy with its "dear leader" Kim Jong Un and has good news to report: "I love him. The guy is awesome. He was so honest."

John Avlon
John Avlon

I'm going to go out on a limb and say this isn't going to look much better in the eyes of history than Charles Lindbergh vouching for Hitler's character in the late 1930s.

But say this for the retired rebounding champion known as "The Worm" -- he got closer to the young dictator by walking in the front door of North Korea with the Harlem Globetrotters and Vice magazine than diplomats and intelligence services have gotten to date. As former Assistant Secretary of State Stephen Ganyard told ABC News, "There is nobody at the CIA who could tell you more personally about Kim Jong Un than Dennis Rodman, and that in itself is scary."

5 ways North Korea is getting stranger

After filming a movie in Cambodia, actress Angelina Jolie began to visit refugee camps around the world. In 2001, she was named a goodwill ambassador by the U.N. Refugee Agency. Since then, Jolie has visited refugee camps in more than 30 countries, and she was appointed special envoy of the U.N. Refugee Agency in April 2012. Here are some other celebrities' forays into international diplomacy. After filming a movie in Cambodia, actress Angelina Jolie began to visit refugee camps around the world. In 2001, she was named a goodwill ambassador by the U.N. Refugee Agency. Since then, Jolie has visited refugee camps in more than 30 countries, and she was appointed special envoy of the U.N. Refugee Agency in April 2012. Here are some other celebrities' forays into international diplomacy.
Celebrities and diplomacy
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
>
>>
Photos: Celebrities\' forays into diplomacy Photos: Celebrities' forays into diplomacy

Bonding over a shared love of basketball and getting drunk with the dictator's entourage sure sounds like a cozy way to visit a country where 3.5 million people have starved to death since 1995. But it requires a bit of willful ignorance to scoop up the state propaganda and be used as a dupe for their domestic state-run media, which is also likely to portray the diminutive dictator as an all-time dunking champ.

NBA commissioner shocked by Rodman trip
Dennis Rodman's basketball diplomacy

In a rambling interview on ABC News' "This Week," Rodman defended his trip and his budding friendship with Kim, telling George Stephanopoulos: "I don't condone what he does, but as far as a person to person, he's my friend" and then went on to the fetid well of moral equivalence to dismiss the prison camps and reports of mass murder as "just politics."

Rodman is far from the first celebrity to be used for publicity purposes to prop up a dictator and even profess real friendship.

Lindbergh cozied up to Adolf Hitler in a naive attempt to keep America isolationist in World War II. American singer, actor and attorney Paul Robeson was taken in by the Soviet Union and proclaimed its lack of segregation was evidence of freedom's progress while millions were being murdered by Joseph Stalin in gulags.

Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez was proud of his personal friendship with Cuba's communist dictator Fidel Castro, propelled by long nights of drinking and philosophizing by the Caribbean Sea.

In more recent years, stars have taken big money from dictators in exchange for private concert performances, including Seal and Hilary Swank appearing at Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov's multimillion dollar 35th birthday bash (Swank later apologized), Nelly Furtado performing for Moammar Gadhafi (she later gave the money back) and Mariah Carey, Usher and Beyonce performing for Gadhafi's sons in St. Barts. (My colleagues at The Daily Beast put together a useful gallery of these and other "stars who hang with dictators.")

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The greed that simply compels one to take a gig, no matter who is paying the bill, is different than the impulse to ingest talking points and benefit from the privileges of friendship with mass murderers who can sometimes seem charmingly insane in person.

Just because you're crazy doesn't mean you're stupid and just because a man can be a monster in his vise-like grip on a state doesn't mean it should be a compelling revelation that he is also in fact human.

As David Remnick detailed in his literary and journalistic portrait of the Soviet Union, "Lenin's Tomb," Stalin was a fan of American musicals and after one long day of purging his own ranks with arbitrary executions, he retired to watch a comedy called "Happy Guys."

This is where judgment and moral clarity come in handy -- two concepts rarely associated with Dennis Rodman. That's why George Stephanopoulos was right to hand him a copy of the Human Rights Watch report on North Korea after Rodman declared his intention to return to North Korea for another visit sometime soon.

Vacationing in dictatorships is always a bad idea, even if it is justified by the self-serving notion of conducting personal diplomacy. It is still, as the Sex Pistols once said, "a cheap holiday in other people's misery."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 13, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
To prevent war with North Korea over a comedy, what would Dennis Rodman say to Kim Jong Un? Movie critic Gene Seymour weighs in.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT