By Robert R. King
Former NBA star Dennis Rodman made his most recent visit to North Korea at the same time American college student Otto Warmbier was medically evacuated to the United States after being imprisoned there for the last 17 months, and during the last 14 of those months he was in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness.”
Rodman was interviewed about his trip by ABC News on June 23—the day after Warmbier’s funeral. In defending his latest visit to North Korea, he complained “people don’t see . . . the good side about that country. It’s like going, like, to Asia. It’s like going to like Istanbul, Turkey, or any place like that. It’s pretty much just like that. You know, you going to see some poverty. You’re going to see some people that’s not doing too well.”
It may be that the former NBA star doesn’t see some aspects of life in the North that others see. It may be that he doesn’t see because he doesn’t want to see, and the North Koreans are certainly not calling his attention to their well-known problems.
Rodman’s very first visit to Pyongyang began February 26, 2013. On this first visit, he met Kim Jong-un and sought to promote basketball. Rodman sang Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” to the young leader and told a crowded basketball arena: “But for me, and your country, you’re a friend for life.” Rodman arrived in Pyongyang on that visit just 11 days after North Korea conducted its third nuclear test—the first under Kim Jong-un. Rodman may not know it, but North Korea is the only nation in the world to conduct nuclear tests in the 21st century, and in the last 11 years North Korean has tested five such weapons. It is clear that their target is the United States since North Korean propaganda video show Washington under a mushroom cloud.
The basketball star made his second visit to DPRK in September 2013. His purpose was to promote basketball, and he and Kim Jong-un spent time jet-skiing, horseback riding and sailing on Kim’s yacht. Rodman held Kim Jong-un’s new daughter, and informed the world, “He’s a good dad and has a beautiful family.” In the rest of the world, the most important news of that summer was the United Nations Human Rights Council’s decision to appointment of three distinguished judicial and human rights authorities as a Commission of Inquiry to investigate human rights abuses in North Korea. The Commission later concluded that the North Korean government is committing systematic human right abuses at a scale “without parallel in the contemporary world,” including extermination, enslavement, rape, forced abortions, and brutal prison camps.
In December of that year, Rodman made a brief visit to Pyongyang to make final arrangements for his January 2014 visit for the gala birthday celebration of Kim Jong-un that was being planned. That visit came at about the same time that Kim Jang-un executed his Uncle Jang Song-thaek, and the arrest just days before the execution took place at a communist party meeting that was broadcast on national television. In North Korea public executions are common, and in some cases, anti-aircraft artillery is used for the executions.
The fourth Rodman trip to North Korea came in January 2014. This was the occasion for the celebration of the birthday of Kim Jong-un. Rodman brought twelve former NBA players with him for the basketball game that was played as part of the festivities. During the celebration, Rodman sang “Happy Birthday” to the leader to a packed basketball arena. That was the occasion for Rodman’s interview with CNN which raised questions about American citizen Kenneth Bae. This American had been imprisoned in North Korea for well over a year at that time for bringing information inadvertently into the DPRK on a computer hard drive while leading a tour group to the country. Rodman lashed out “If you understand what Kenneth Bae did …. Do you understand what he did in this country? Why is he held captive in this country?” Bae was finally released ten months later after U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper went to Pyongyang. Bae graciously suggested that the furor over Rodman’s CNN interview may helped his release, however, I have seen no evidence at all to indicate that it had any impact.
Rodman’s fifth and last visit, thus far, came just a couple of weeks ago. On this trip, he met with the Minister of Sport, but he did not see his “friend for life” Kim Jong-un. He arrived in the North Korean capital at about the same time that Ambassador Joseph Yun was there with medical personnel to medivac American citizen Otto Warmbier to the United States. Rodman had nothing to say about the American student for the previous 17 months that he was held in the North, but he claimed credit for the release after returning to the United States.
Here again it is hard to “see the good side” of a country that arrests a visitor for taking a framed propaganda slogan off the wall and sitting it on the floor. Even if there was intent to take the poster, it hardly merits a fifteen year prison sentence. But even more, medical test data on Mr. Warmbier given to American officials by North Korean medical authorities was date stamped April 2016. He was in the state of “unresponsive wakefulness” for 14 months. The North apparently retained him in the hope that he would recover and only released him after this length of time when it appeared likely he would not.
Is the “good side” of North Korea evident in the statement issued by the Foreign Ministry a few days ago that the DPRK was the “biggest victim” in Mr. Warmbier’s illness, which occurred when he was being held incommunicado in their custody?
Dennis Rodman’s claim that “people don’t see . . . the good side about that country” suggests he has a very limited understanding of the reality of life in the DPRK. Yacht trips, horseback riding, karaoke, cheering adoring crowds—these are are not the reality of North Korea. A quick look at what was really happening at the very times that Rodman was in Pyongyang gives a dramatically different picture.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from OPEN Sports’ photostream on flickr Creative Commons.