The Washington Times - January 8, 2014, 10:04AM

Now immersed in his fourth visit to North Korea, Dennis Rodman and a cast of former basketball greats will stage an exhibition game before the isolated nation’s most elite citizens on Wednesday, all to celebrate the 31st birthday of dictator Kim Jong-un. Mr. Rodman insists it’s hard but productive work, and that the leader is his close pal; the athlete screamed as much to CNN in an aggressive interview with Chris Cuomo. The network correspondent dryly noted he was relieved the encounter was via video rather than in person.

Yes, well. The world looks on anyway, waiting for spectacle. Or something. Both State Department and White House remain elusive on the Rodman phenomenon, insisting that the trip is one of a private citizen and that’s that.

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“Sports exchanges can be valuable. Sports diplomacy can be valuable. And it’s something that we pursue in many places around the world, including through direct support. But this is a private trip,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told his gathering with reporters, when pressed on it.

“I don’t think we should ignore the real suffering in this gulag state,” counters Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat who is minority leader of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. “And Dennis Rodman wants to go there and play basketball. It would be like inviting Adolf Hitler to lunch. What Dennis Rodman is doing is very ill-conceived.”

But then there’s this from Jesse Jackson in a Tweet: “Ping pong diplomacy worked in China, and basketball seems to work in North Korea.”

Or it could all be an odd diplomatic hybrid which has some legs, ramped up by a news media eager for fabulous controversy and stunts. Mr. Rodman and his team are “unlikely emissaries,” says a New York Times analysis, conducting “a strange trip that has left the world’s diplomatic corps puzzled and, perhaps, a little jealous over the access the players may receive.”