Is Dennis Rodman smart on North Korea?

Story highlights

  • Dennis Rodman and N. Korea agreed to two games between U.S. and N. Korean players
  • Daniel Pinkston: Rodman has built up trust with leader of an isolated and paranoid country
  • He says with the extreme scarcity of trust on the Korean peninsula, the games are a good start
  • Pinkston: Denying civil society engagement with N. Korea won't solve any problems

Speaking at a press conference in New York on Monday, Dennis Rodman said he had received the following instruction from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un when they were together the previous week: "Dennis, I want you to go over to America and say, 'Guess what, we want people to come over here, because we are not a bad country.' "

According to Rodman, "He likes me because I am very true and very honest." Kim let the American hold his only child, a baby girl. He also allowed Rodman to tell him "Your grandfather and your father did some bad things," which cannot be something Kim hears very often.

Rodman has somehow built up trust with the leader of probably the most isolated and paranoid country in the world. So the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Dennis Rodman signed an agreement for him to bring over 12 former NBA players to have two games with a North Korean team. However unlikely an ambassador Dennis Rodman might make, this is a positive development.

Lack of trust is often cited as one of the main obstacles to reconciliation on the Korean peninsula. Pundits and policymakers argue that establishing trust is necessary to conclude a peace treaty to replace the Korean War Armistice and to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.

If trust could be established, many people believe a North East Asian economic community could be formed that would bring greater prosperity and peace to the region. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has articulated a vision of trust-building to create a new era of inter-Korean relations and a North East Asian peace regime.

Trust-building requires human interactions. Some of this can be handled by the state. For example, this week the governments of the two Koreas agreed to reconnect the inter-Korean military hotline that was shut off in the spring. In the inter-state realm, government-to-government dialogue is necessary for building trust and securing agreements in areas such as arms control.

In some cases, governmental agreements are necessary before private actors can enter the picture. North Korean and South Korean governments will have to reach agreements before private firms and citizens can participate in business and tourism at for example, the Kaesŏng Industrial Complex and the Mount Kŭmgang Tourism Zone. However, official talks between the two Koreas have been strained as they have struggled to agree on measures to restore inter-Korean economic projects.

Civil society engagement is not sufficient for building trust at the governmental level, but it can create channels for the transmission of information and ideas into the world's most closed society.

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Sports is an excellent activity for trust-building because athletes must trust their teammates if they are to perform at their fullest potential. For example, powerlifters attempting heavy lifts have to trust their spotters to catch the bar in case they fail. In judo and other martial arts, athletes must trust their partners during training because some of the moves can cause serious injury or even death if executed improperly. In basketball, players must trust each other to be in the right spot when running a play.

Enter Dennis Rodman. The recent agreement signed by North Korea's Minister of Sports and Rodman provides for a one-week training camp in December and two matches in January 2014. Rodman told me he plans to mix up the teams so that Americans and Koreans will be playing with each other and the Koreans will have an opportunity to play on the same side with former NBA stars. This will be a great opportunity for the Korean players to improve their game, but more importantly, it will also enable them to build mutual trust and realize that they can work and cooperate with Americans.

Building trust through sports and cultural exchanges seems insignificant, but with the extreme scarcity of trust on the Korean peninsula, this is a good place to start.

Many people dissatisfied with Pyongyang seek to punish the regime by denying civil society engagement. However, this approach is unlikely to change North Korean minds, which is necessary for a change in Pyongyang's policy direction.

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