Dennis Rodman is heading to North Korea again to see his pal Kim Jong Un, reportedly to talk about starting a basketball league.
The fact that it's Rodman and not, say, Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan makes it easy to dismiss the idea. And ordinarily I would, except that I'm stuck wondering who stands to gain more from this purported exercise in basketball diplomacy: Kim or Rodman?
On the one hand you have a young despot whose main challenge is to keep the grip on power that he inherited from his father, Kim Jong Il. That means maintaining the fealty of the military, keeping the Communist Party leadership firmly in his corner and convincing the masses that he's the best and only option.
Happily for Kim, North Korea isn't a democracy. Otherwise, he might have to worry about being held accountable for the endemic poverty, declining life expectancy, sporadic electricity and other Third World quality-of-life issues. While millions of his countrymen starve, Kim himself is a billionaire sitting atop the world's most corrupt government. As if that's not enough, he apparently can have his exes executed.
Still, a coup d'etat appears to be a real risk for Kim. And the stiffening global sanctions make governing, if not more difficult, at least more complicated. So Kim has reason to worry about his image, albeit more internally than to the rest of the world.
Rodman, meanwhile, appears to be surviving solely on the strength of his dwindling celebrity. He earned a reported $27 million in salary, five championship rings and a spot in basketball's Hall of Fame as a gifted rebounder in the NBA. But his career ended in 2000, and last year his lawyers told a judge in Orange that Rodman was broke. At the time, he owed more than $850,000 in child and spousal support payments.
But being a former NBA star and one of Jordan's teammates during the Chicago Bulls' glory years has its privileges. Rodman traveled to North Korea in March to join Kim in co-hosting a basketball game for the Vice media company, which was promoting a new show on HBO. It was a canny stunt by Vice, which capitalized on Kim's love of basketball in general and the Bulls in particular.
This time, Rodman is carrying water for an online betting outlet called Paddy Power, which is getting an enormous amount of publicity around the world for the cost of Rodman's travel expenses. Rodman gets another payday and another few days in the spotlight -- his comfort zone.
When word first circulated about the trip, Rodman said he planned to ask Kim to release American citizen Kenneth Bae, a Christian missionary who's been imprisoned in a North Korean labor camp for several months. He has since backed away from that claim, avoiding the burden of having to produce something tangible in order to declare the trip a success.
That's a good thing for Rodman -- at this stage in his life, simply having a corporate sponsor is enough of a win -- and for Paddy Power, which would have its investment devalued if it was associated with a failed rescue mission. That investment has already paid off; now it's just a matter of having Rodman make it back from North Korea unscathed.
As for Kim, it's hard to see how he comes out ahead. Maybe he hopes to put together a North Korean basketball team that can compete at an elite level, following in the path of the country's soccer teams, which qualified for the men's World Cup in 2010 (only to be blown out in the first round and, later, subjected to a humiliating public inquiry at home) and the women's World Cup in 2011 (only to be barred from the 2015 go-around after five players tested positive for steroid use).
OK, so maybe the soccer path isn't exactly the one to follow. But a team that the country can rally around could help Kim buy some goodwill internally while offering the rest of the world a view of the North Korean citizenry that's not malnourished.
Rodman might lend some (fading) star power to that effort, and perhaps he can offer the North Koreans some tips on how to dominate on the boards. But I'm guessing neither side really wants anything to come of this trip, other than a bunch of media attention (from suckers such as myself) and the promise of another visit down the road.
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