Before we completely dismiss the idea of Dennis Rodman, diplomat, consider this: President Obama probably has more to talk about with Kim Jong-un right now than he does with John Boehner. Maybe basketball isn’t as important as the budget, but at least they won’t suffer through those awkward silences.
There is also a beautiful symmetry to the idea that the world’s strangest athlete got along so well with the world’s strangest autocrat. In the NBA, no one ever knew quite what to make of Rodman, except that he kept winning titles. In diplomacy, no one knows what to make of the Kim family, except that they keep exploding nukes.
And it would be wrong to assume that no one comes out ahead in what has been a farcical few days of meta-diplomacy: the real winner here is VICE Media, which organized the former NBA star’s trip to North Korea ahead of its news-magazine series debut on HBO in April. By using the towering Rodman to lure the diminutive Kim into the spotlight, VICE managed to pull off one of the great publicity coups in memory – maybe since 1951, when Bill Veeck of the St. Louis Browns sent a midget up to bat.
Vice knew its quarry well: for years the North Korean regime has yearned for U.S. attention, any kind of attention. "What can we do to get the Americans to talk with us?" North Korean envoy Han Song Ryol, a former ambassador to the U.N., once asked an American acquaintance. The regime is serious about developing nuclear weapons, but this too is an attention-getter as much as it is a deterrent against the much-feared Americans. Nothing infuriated Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, more than the Obama administration's early policy of "strategic patience" -- refusing to negotiate until Pyongyang unilaterally agreed to suspend its program. The timing of the regime’s latest nuclear test, on the day of Obama’s State of the Union, was hardly an accident.
Now the two sides are starting from scratch. And if the only way to begin the drama/opera is with a clown show—that’s been done before—then a weird, unemployed basketball star surely works as well as anyone else. "He want Obama to do one thing: Call him.," Rodman said on ABC on Sunday. "He said, 'If you can Dennis, I don't want to do war.' He said that to me."
So, that’s good to hear. And now, Rodman has helped to fill in a few left-over blanks about Kim Jong-un himself. Young Kim, Mao suit and all, is clearly a chunky chip off his father’s bloc. For more than a decade before his death in December 2011, Kim Jong-il all but jumped up and down trying to get Washington pay notice. When America did take him seriously, Kim was as gleeful as his son. Awarded by a visit from then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000, the elder Kim brought her to a stadium spectacle at which a mass of performers flipped colored placards that depicted Kim's Taepodong I missile taking off for its first test in 1998. According to diplomat Wendy Sherman, who was there, an ebullient and apparently hopeful Kim turned then to Albright and said, "That was the first launch of that missile, and it will be the last."
It wasn’t, of course. But now the younger Kim, saddled with running a regime that has zero viability on the world stage except through what it can extract using nuclear blackmail, is clearly reaching out in the way that only North Korean dictators can. “The kid’s only 28,” Rodman said. “He loves basketball. Obama loves basketball. Let’s start there.” When you’re at ground zero, that makes as much sense as any other approach.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified Bill Veeck's sports team affiliation in 1951. He was an owner of the St. Louis Browns.