Skip to main content

Rodman just a toy for N. Korea's Kim

By Sung-Yoon Lee, Special to CNN
September 7, 2013 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
A North Korean soldier patrols the bank of the Yalu River, which separates the North Korean town of Sinuiju from the Chinese border town of Dandong, on Saturday, April 26. A recent <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/17/world/asia/north-korea-un-report/index.html'>United Nations report</a> described a brutal North Korean state "that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world." A North Korean soldier patrols the bank of the Yalu River, which separates the North Korean town of Sinuiju from the Chinese border town of Dandong, on Saturday, April 26. A recent United Nations report described a brutal North Korean state "that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world."
HIDE CAPTION
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dennis Rodman was in North Korea purportedly trying to negotiate release of a U.S. detainee
  • Sung-Yoon Lee: In the annals of diplomatic history, this may well be a little blip
  • He says Kim Jong Un's courting of Rodman is equivalent to his enjoyment of Disney
  • Lee: Despite displays of theatrics, don't forget North Korea's crimes against humanity

Editor's note: Sung-Yoon Lee is the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation professor in Korean Studies and assistant professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

(CNN) -- Dennis Rodman, the former NBA star and the first American known to have met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was in the secretive country again this past week, purportedly to meet his "friend Kim, the Marshal" and perhaps also, to negotiate for the release of Kenneth Bae, a U.S. citizen detained since November.

Rodman's second trip to North Korea this year comes months after months of threats of nuclear annihilation from Pyongyang. His desire to help Bae is likely to be registered in the annals of diplomatic history as little more than a little diverting adventure.

But one never knows. The "Marshal," who has actually never served in the military, might choose to act in a statesmanlike manner and release Bae after another high-spirited soiree with the basketball legend. That would be good news for Bae, who is reportedly in poor health.

Other detained Americans

Sung-Yoon Lee
Sung-Yoon Lee

Such a dramatic gesture of goodwill by the reclusive leader would achieve the effect of adding insult to the United States in light of North Korea's recent cancellation of an invitation to the U.S. special envoy on North Korean human rights issues.

Rodman, of course, is not qualified to carry out negotiations with North Korea on sensitive political issues. Nor does the North Korean leadership see him as a credible conveyor of official message to Washington.

Kim's unconventional courting of Rodman is about equivalent to his enjoyment of Disney characters and scantily clad women on stage. It's all jolly and trite pleasure.

Freelance reporter James Foley went missing in November 2012 after his car was stopped by gunmen in Syria. A video released by ISIS on Tuesday, August 19, shows Foley being beheaded. The video posted on YouTube contained a message to the United States to end its military operations in Iraq. Freelance reporter James Foley went missing in November 2012 after his car was stopped by gunmen in Syria. A video released by ISIS on Tuesday, August 19, shows Foley being beheaded. The video posted on YouTube contained a message to the United States to end its military operations in Iraq.
Americans detained abroad
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
>
>>
Photos: Americans detained abroad Photos: Americans detained abroad
Dennis Rodman to see 'my friend Kim'

Kim's attraction to American icons such as the NBA or Hollywood does not signal a genuine overture to Washington. It does not indicate intentions of reform or opening up of the isolated totalitarian state that imprisons some 1% of its population in political concentration camps.

We should never forget that amidst the levity and bonhomie that will emanate from Pyongyang in the coming days, North Korea, throughout more than 60 years of its existence, has committed systematic and widespread attacks on its civilian population, including murder, extermination, enslavement, torture, enforced sexual slavery and disappearance of people. In short, these are crimes against humanity.

But what about the residual effects of personal warmth and brotherhood between Kim and Rodman? Will not such a "cultural encounter" between the Korean and the American lead to a "breakthrough," as "ping-pong diplomacy" between China and the U.S. in 1971 supposedly did?

In 1971, American table tennis players were invited to China for the first time. Just three months after that unprecedented "cultural exchange," U.S. national security adviser Henry Kissinger secretly visited Beijing, a diplomatic coup that was capped off by President Richard Nixon's visit to China the following February.

Lest anyone think that ping-pong diplomacy and Sino-U.S. rapprochement are married by cause and effect and hastily draw the conclusion that Rodman's latest visit has a fighting chance of bringing about a diplomatic breakthrough between Washington and Pyongyang, I'd say: Theatrics are not equal to politics.

Kenneth Bae: Please help me

The goodwill triggered by ping-pong matches between Chinese and Americans in 1971 was a mood enhancer to the secret contacts between Washington and Beijing that had been underway since September 1970. The two countries wanted to discuss geopolitical issues of mutual concern: Containing the Soviet threat, the Vietnam War, China's seat in the U.N. Security Council and Taiwan.

But theatrics are not entirely irrelevant to politics. If anything, the young North Korean leader's occasional displays of affinity for American pop culture will only irk the country's revolutionary old guards. Kim clearly lacks the gravitas of his late father. He may believe that he is exuding an affable image by being seen with an American star. But by traditional Korean standards on how a national leader should carry himself, Kim comes across as less charismatic than -- dare I say -- a lightweight.

There is no reason to believe that the North Korean military would challenge anytime soon. Kim's hold on power over the party and the military seems, for now, firm. But the prospects for a long, happy reign for whom propagandists tout as a demigod are dim.

With time, Kim will come to believe in his own infallibility if not in his omnipotence. And megalomania is particularly susceptible to mortal miscalculation, whether on matters of court intrigue or foreign policy. In other words, for Marshal Kim Jong Un, fantasy is reality. And for a ruthless dictator, that's an invitation to an early brush with mortality.

If Dennis Rodman unwittingly sows the seeds of reality in the fantastical world of the North Korean leader by nudging him toward miscalculation and deeper depths of self-absorption or planting doubt in the minds of North Koreans with access to big guns -- then his latest courting of the Marshal may rightfully come to be remembered one day, indeed, as a game-changer.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sung-Yoon Lee.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1411 GMT (2211 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT