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

Actress Emma Watson, a U.N. goodwill ambassador, joins U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for the launch of the HeForShe campaign Saturday, September 20, at the United Nations. Watson's speech on gender equality has gone viral. Here are some other celebrities' forays into international diplomacy: Actress Emma Watson, a U.N. goodwill ambassador, joins U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for the launch of the HeForShe campaign Saturday, September 20, at the United Nations. Watson's speech on gender equality has gone viral. 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
17
>
>>
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 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT