Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

In North Korea, Dennis Rodman fouls out

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
updated 3:12 PM EST, Mon March 4, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dennis Rodman returned from North Korea with an upbeat assessment
  • John Avlon says Rodman didn't take North Korea's rights violations seriously
  • He says celebrities who give aid to dictators deserve criticism
  • Avlon: Rodman's actions follow in the trail of others such as Charles Lindbergh

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He is a regular contributor to "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to "Erin Burnett OutFront" at 7 ET weeknights. He won the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' award for best online column in 2012.

New York (CNN) -- Never fear. While North Korea is a closed communist state, a rogue nuclear power that regularly threatens war and starves its own people in prison camps, Dennis Rodman has just returned from some one-on-one diplomacy with its "dear leader" Kim Jong Un and has good news to report: "I love him. The guy is awesome. He was so honest."

John Avlon
John Avlon

I'm going to go out on a limb and say this isn't going to look much better in the eyes of history than Charles Lindbergh vouching for Hitler's character in the late 1930s.

But say this for the retired rebounding champion known as "The Worm" -- he got closer to the young dictator by walking in the front door of North Korea with the Harlem Globetrotters and Vice magazine than diplomats and intelligence services have gotten to date. As former Assistant Secretary of State Stephen Ganyard told ABC News, "There is nobody at the CIA who could tell you more personally about Kim Jong Un than Dennis Rodman, and that in itself is scary."

5 ways North Korea is getting stranger

After filming a movie in Cambodia, actress Angelina Jolie began to visit refugee camps around the world. In 2001, she was named a goodwill ambassador by the U.N. Refugee Agency. Since then, Jolie has visited refugee camps in more than 30 countries, and she was appointed special envoy of the U.N. Refugee Agency in April 2012. Here are some other celebrities' forays into international diplomacy. After filming a movie in Cambodia, actress Angelina Jolie began to visit refugee camps around the world. In 2001, she was named a goodwill ambassador by the U.N. Refugee Agency. Since then, Jolie has visited refugee camps in more than 30 countries, and she was appointed special envoy of the U.N. Refugee Agency in April 2012. Here are some other celebrities' forays into international diplomacy.
Celebrities and diplomacy
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
>
>>
Photos: Celebrities\' forays into diplomacy Photos: Celebrities' forays into diplomacy

Bonding over a shared love of basketball and getting drunk with the dictator's entourage sure sounds like a cozy way to visit a country where 3.5 million people have starved to death since 1995. But it requires a bit of willful ignorance to scoop up the state propaganda and be used as a dupe for their domestic state-run media, which is also likely to portray the diminutive dictator as an all-time dunking champ.

NBA commissioner shocked by Rodman trip
Dennis Rodman's basketball diplomacy

In a rambling interview on ABC News' "This Week," Rodman defended his trip and his budding friendship with Kim, telling George Stephanopoulos: "I don't condone what he does, but as far as a person to person, he's my friend" and then went on to the fetid well of moral equivalence to dismiss the prison camps and reports of mass murder as "just politics."

Rodman is far from the first celebrity to be used for publicity purposes to prop up a dictator and even profess real friendship.

Lindbergh cozied up to Adolf Hitler in a naive attempt to keep America isolationist in World War II. American singer, actor and attorney Paul Robeson was taken in by the Soviet Union and proclaimed its lack of segregation was evidence of freedom's progress while millions were being murdered by Joseph Stalin in gulags.

Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez was proud of his personal friendship with Cuba's communist dictator Fidel Castro, propelled by long nights of drinking and philosophizing by the Caribbean Sea.

In more recent years, stars have taken big money from dictators in exchange for private concert performances, including Seal and Hilary Swank appearing at Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov's multimillion dollar 35th birthday bash (Swank later apologized), Nelly Furtado performing for Moammar Gadhafi (she later gave the money back) and Mariah Carey, Usher and Beyonce performing for Gadhafi's sons in St. Barts. (My colleagues at The Daily Beast put together a useful gallery of these and other "stars who hang with dictators.")

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The greed that simply compels one to take a gig, no matter who is paying the bill, is different than the impulse to ingest talking points and benefit from the privileges of friendship with mass murderers who can sometimes seem charmingly insane in person.

Just because you're crazy doesn't mean you're stupid and just because a man can be a monster in his vise-like grip on a state doesn't mean it should be a compelling revelation that he is also in fact human.

As David Remnick detailed in his literary and journalistic portrait of the Soviet Union, "Lenin's Tomb," Stalin was a fan of American musicals and after one long day of purging his own ranks with arbitrary executions, he retired to watch a comedy called "Happy Guys."

This is where judgment and moral clarity come in handy -- two concepts rarely associated with Dennis Rodman. That's why George Stephanopoulos was right to hand him a copy of the Human Rights Watch report on North Korea after Rodman declared his intention to return to North Korea for another visit sometime soon.

Vacationing in dictatorships is always a bad idea, even if it is justified by the self-serving notion of conducting personal diplomacy. It is still, as the Sex Pistols once said, "a cheap holiday in other people's misery."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT