Skip to main content

Is Dennis Rodman smart on North Korea?

By Daniel Pinkston, Special to CNN
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Tue September 10, 2013
Dennis Rodman sings "Happy Birthday" to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before an exhibition basketball game in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Wednesday, January 8. In his latest round of "<a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/06/world/asia/north-korea-dennis-rodman/index.html'>basketball diplomacy</a>," Rodman made his fourth visit to North Korea, one of the world's most totalitarian states, to participate in a basketball game between North Korea and a team of former NBA players. Dennis Rodman sings "Happy Birthday" to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before an exhibition basketball game in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Wednesday, January 8. In his latest round of "basketball diplomacy," Rodman made his fourth visit to North Korea, one of the world's most totalitarian states, to participate in a basketball game between North Korea and a team of former NBA players.
HIDE CAPTION
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
Dennis Rodman's trips to North Korea
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dennis Rodman and N. Korea agreed to two games between U.S. and N. Korean players
  • Daniel Pinkston: Rodman has built up trust with leader of an isolated and paranoid country
  • He says with the extreme scarcity of trust on the Korean peninsula, the games are a good start
  • Pinkston: Denying civil society engagement with N. Korea won't solve any problems

Editor's note: Daniel Pinkston is acting director of International Crisis Group's North East Asia project. He has written frequently on how to engage North Korea and provided background information and expert analysis at Dennis Rodman's press conference on Monday.

(CNN) -- Speaking at a press conference in New York on Monday, Dennis Rodman said he had received the following instruction from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un when they were together the previous week: "Dennis, I want you to go over to America and say, 'Guess what, we want people to come over here, because we are not a bad country.' "

According to Rodman, "He likes me because I am very true and very honest." Kim let the American hold his only child, a baby girl. He also allowed Rodman to tell him "Your grandfather and your father did some bad things," which cannot be something Kim hears very often.

Rodman has somehow built up trust with the leader of probably the most isolated and paranoid country in the world. So the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Dennis Rodman signed an agreement for him to bring over 12 former NBA players to have two games with a North Korean team. However unlikely an ambassador Dennis Rodman might make, this is a positive development.

Lack of trust is often cited as one of the main obstacles to reconciliation on the Korean peninsula. Pundits and policymakers argue that establishing trust is necessary to conclude a peace treaty to replace the Korean War Armistice and to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.

If trust could be established, many people believe a North East Asian economic community could be formed that would bring greater prosperity and peace to the region. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has articulated a vision of trust-building to create a new era of inter-Korean relations and a North East Asian peace regime.

Trust-building requires human interactions. Some of this can be handled by the state. For example, this week the governments of the two Koreas agreed to reconnect the inter-Korean military hotline that was shut off in the spring. In the inter-state realm, government-to-government dialogue is necessary for building trust and securing agreements in areas such as arms control.

In some cases, governmental agreements are necessary before private actors can enter the picture. North Korean and South Korean governments will have to reach agreements before private firms and citizens can participate in business and tourism at for example, the Kaesŏng Industrial Complex and the Mount Kŭmgang Tourism Zone. However, official talks between the two Koreas have been strained as they have struggled to agree on measures to restore inter-Korean economic projects.

Dennis Rodman running foreign policy?
Rodman's hoop dreams for North Korea

Civil society engagement is not sufficient for building trust at the governmental level, but it can create channels for the transmission of information and ideas into the world's most closed society.

Sports is an excellent activity for trust-building because athletes must trust their teammates if they are to perform at their fullest potential. For example, powerlifters attempting heavy lifts have to trust their spotters to catch the bar in case they fail. In judo and other martial arts, athletes must trust their partners during training because some of the moves can cause serious injury or even death if executed improperly. In basketball, players must trust each other to be in the right spot when running a play.

Enter Dennis Rodman. The recent agreement signed by North Korea's Minister of Sports and Rodman provides for a one-week training camp in December and two matches in January 2014. Rodman told me he plans to mix up the teams so that Americans and Koreans will be playing with each other and the Koreans will have an opportunity to play on the same side with former NBA stars. This will be a great opportunity for the Korean players to improve their game, but more importantly, it will also enable them to build mutual trust and realize that they can work and cooperate with Americans.

Building trust through sports and cultural exchanges seems insignificant, but with the extreme scarcity of trust on the Korean peninsula, this is a good place to start.

Many people dissatisfied with Pyongyang seek to punish the regime by denying civil society engagement. However, this approach is unlikely to change North Korean minds, which is necessary for a change in Pyongyang's policy direction.

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Daniel Pinkston.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
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.
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
updated 8:25 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
updated 7:28 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 8:41 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 6:31 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT