I confess I’m probably one of the few in this country ever to own a pair of
Dennis Rodman Converse basketball shoes. You know, the ones with the funky sun
signs on the ankles. In white. High-tops. (They had to be deep-discounted on
I’m not ready to have them bronzed quite yet.
But maybe I’ll have to, especially if they become symbols of international
diplomacy and Rodman wins the Nobel Peace Prize.
Rodman is making news by playing basketball jester/diplomat to North Korea’s Kim
Jong Un on the dictator’s 31st birthday this week.
It’s one of the few times Kim has let the world see him, as the saying goes,
with his hair down.
It also makes Rodman more effective than the CIA– at least when it comes to
North Korean intelligence.
Despite appearances, Dennis Rodman and intelligence aren’t necessarily mutually
exclusive terms. And some Washington observers, such as Georgetown professor
Victor Cha, are even keeping an open mind about what might come out of Rodman’s
Especially if it can help out Asian American Kenneth Bae.
Of course, everyone knows Rodman, the retired NBA star.
But Bae? He’s the one without the nose piercings. The one in prison garb.
Bae is the Asian American missionary from Southern California, who has been held
in captivity by the North Koreans for more than a year–the longest period since
the Korean war.
If you missed the story about Bae’s arrest in November 2012 for supposedly being
a threat to the North Korean regime, his subsequent incarceration and conviction
last May, or his mother’s visit to North Korea this past December, that’s all
Bae’s plight is one of the most under-reported stories out there. Just like the
regime itself. Essentially, he’s just a bargaining chip, until the regime wants
something bad enough.
Rodman? Nah, they get him cheap.
But just add Rodman into the mix, and suddenly Bae’s despair is news again.
That’s Rodman’s value as a rubbernecker’s dream. As you drive past, you can’t
help but look at the accidental openings his actions create.
So when Rodman gave an exclusive interview to CNN’s Chris Cuomo Tuesday morning,
it was bound to be interesting.
Was he being used by Kim?
Said Rodman: “I love my friend. This is my friend.”
Cuomo pressed Rodman on the regime’s human rights record, but Rodman got
defensive. He is at least aware of the criticism he’s getting for playing pick
and roll with a despot.
“Are you going to take the abuse we’re going [to get]?” Rodman asked Cuomo. And
then he played up the humanitarianism of his balling. “One day, this door’s
going to open because these 10 guys here…all of us…everybody here. We can just
open the door a little bit for people to come here.”
That door is still shut closed, especially for Bae.
And when Cuomo questioned whether Rodman had asked his friend about Bae, the
athlete known as “The Worm” squiggled with rage.
“Do you understand what he did in this country?” asked Rodman.
“Kenneth Bae did one thing,” Rodman said. “If you understand what Kenneth Bae
did. Do you understand what he did in this country? No, no, no, you tell me, you
tell me. Why is he held captive here in this country, why? …”
This is where Rodman’s foot was clearly on the line, and we can all blow the
whistle. No longer was he a dumb jock. Now he was defending his unusual
basketball patron, the ruthless dictator.
Even Bill Richardson, who has been successful in helping people held captive by
the North Koreans, said Rodman was out of bounds.
Richardson called Rodman and his comments “wrong and inappropriate” by even
implying that Bae might be guilty.
“There is no crime. Kenneth Bae is an American detainee who’s been there a year
in bad health and deserves to come home,” said Richardson on CNN with Wolf
Blitzer. “I think Dennis drank a little too much of the Kool-Aid from the North
Of course, Richardson knows about drinking Kool-Aid. He drank the wrong batch
when, as Energy Secretary, he badly bungled the case of Wen Ho Lee.
You’ll recall that Lee, the Los Alamos nuclear scientist who was accused of
being a spy, was later exonerated.
So Richardson isn’t 100 percent perfect in telling his spies from non-spies.
But his record on North Korea suggests he knows a little more than Dennis
If Richardson doesn’t, the professional diplomats had better start practicing
their jump shots.
Still, I don’t want to think Rodman is just innocently playing ball.
He does shine a light on the regime. And as long as we can separate what’s real
from what’s propaganda, it’s still worth it–for Kenneth Bae’s sake–to see if
Rodman’s more than just a sideshow and maybe even creates an avenue for hope.