North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has few fans, but one of his biggest just arrived in Pyongyang. Dennis Rodman joined several other former NBA players for an exhibition game against a North Korean team for the amusement of Mr. Kim on Wednesday. This was the North Korean dictator’s 31st birthday. Mr. Rodman even sang an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday” to the Not So Dear Leader before the tipoff at Pyongyang Indoor Stadium.
Mr. Rodman embraces Mr. Kim as “a very good guy” and his “best friend.” This is the same birthday boy who just ordered his uncle executed for “insufficient loyalty.” For Mr. Rodman, a love of basketball covers a multitude of mortal sins.
Love of basketball runs in the Kim family. In a visit to Pyongyang in 2000, Madeleine K. Albright, the secretary of State, took a basketball signed by NBA legend Michael Jordan as a gift for Kim Jong-il. That produced no moderation on the part of Pyongyang, and there’s no reason to think Mr. Rodman’s “basketball diplomacy” will do any better. Mr. Rodman and his all-stars took the precaution, fortunately, of showing sufficient loyalty to Mr. Kim, losing a shortened match to the home team.
Interviewed via satellite from the North Korean capital, Mr. Rodman didn’t want to hear it when CNN’s Chris Cuomo asked if he would press for the release of Kenneth Bae, an American missionary held captive there for more than a year on vague charges of “anti-state” conduct. He launched into an incoherent, profane answer, implying that Mr. Bae had done something illegal.
Terri Chung, Mr. Bae’s sister, was understandably outraged. “This is not a game,” she told a Seattle television interviewer. “This is a man’s life.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, fresh from an unsuccessful attempt to inject himself into the “Duck Dynasty” controversy, defended Mr. Rodman’s fourth diplomatic visit to Pyongyang. He hearkened to President Nixon’s opening to China in the early 1970s. “Ping-pong diplomacy worked in China,” Mr. Jackson tweeted, “and basketball seems to work in North Korea.”
Others weren’t so easily persuaded. “I don’t think we should ignore the real suffering in this gulag state,” says Rep. Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “It would be like inviting Adolf Hitler to lunch. What Dennis Rodman is doing is very ill-conceived.”
Otis Birdsong, a four-time NBA all-star and chairman of the National Basketball Retired Players Association, distanced his organization from the excursion. “Under the right circumstances, basketball can serve as a bridge to bring communities together,” he said Tuesday, “but these are not those circumstances.”
GQ magazine bestowed on Mr. Rodman the dubious distinction of taking No. 1 on its list of “The 25 Least Influential People of 2013,” saluting his willingness “to commit borderline treason” by cozying up to the head of what it called a “nation-sized prison.” It’s only January, of course, but Dennis Rodman appears to be a slam dunk for the title for the second year in a row.