By Nicholas Hamisevicz
Dennis Rodman and Seth Rogen have made the same mistake on North Korea. Both have mistakenly viewed North Korea as a helpless entity. Rodman viewed North Korea as so helpless that all it needed was someone to talk to, play basketball with, and sing “Happy Birthday” to its leader. Rogen saw North Korea so incapable that it couldn’t possibly get upset or respond to the movie where its current leader is targeted for assassination. These two instances have impaired possible engagement paths with North Korea. More disturbingly, the possibility of repeating this same mistake is higher than the possibility of learning from it.
For Dennis Rodman, the dramatic attention he received after actually meeting Kim Jong-un on his first trip conflated the misperceptions of North Korea’s helplessness and Rodman’s actual influence. Upon his initial return home, Rodman repeated Kim Jong-un’s message to President Obama to call him. For Rodman, a phone call about basketball was all that was needed. However, President Obama understood that North Korea is more complex and dangerous to U.S. interests. Before his next visit to North Korea, the complexities began to mount for Rodman as he was constantly asked about Kenneth Bae, a U.S. citizen detained in North Korea at the time, was having difficulty finding players for his delegation, and was trying to demonstrate that the return trip to North Korea was more than a propaganda gift for Kim Jong-un’s birthday. In the end, there was no talk of Kenneth Bae, no basketball clinic with kids, no return visits, and U.S.-North Korea relations are still strained.
While some of the actions and reports out of North Korea may seem outlandish and perfect for comedic movies, the outcomes are not. What is actually happening inside North Korea is more serious. The North Korean regime does need to be offended, but if that was the goal of Rogen and Sony, they needed to be much more prepared for the public relations attention and actual responses from North Korea. The misperception that North Korea is helplessly isolated contributed to The Interview team only talking to a few experts on North Korea, not having coordinated talking points about the purpose of the movie, lack of coordination against a North Korean response, and lack of cohesion in going forward with the movie once it was approved to be made.
Unfortunately, mistakes by Rodman and Rogen have damaged two avenues of engagement that would actually be worthwhile pursuing. Basketball and sports diplomacy was a brilliant hook to attract a young leader who as a kid went to see an NBA exhibition in Paris. Moreover, his father was known to have taped NBA games, especially those featuring the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. This excellent opportunity has now been damaged by the fallout from the Dennis Rodman visits and will make it more difficult for U.S.-based organizations actually structured for international basketball exchanges, especially those geared toward the youth, to set up an operation with North Korea.
Movies and film are also a great way to engage North Korea, but this too is now tainted. North Korean media seemingly feels almost every branch and department in the U.S. government is connected with The Interview movie, potentially putting a larger stigma on any entity from the U.S. connected with the movie industry. This is unfortunate because Kim Jong-un’s father was a huge movie buff. Plus, British and Belgian filmmakers have already had some success in engaging through film, shooting three documentaries and one feature film inside North Korea. Granted, because the British and many European countries have diplomatic relations with North Korea, there is likely more flexibility than an American group pursuing similar projects, but the precedent is there. Yet disparaging the North Korean leader through a U.S.-made movie, the cyber attack on Sony Pictures believed to be from North Korea, and a potential retaliatory response by the U.S. government all suggest a path for U.S.-North Korea engagement through the movie industry will be blocked as a possibility for some time.
Worse, both Rodman’s visits and Rogen’s movie perpetuate this same mistake or perception. The lack of preparation, understanding, and messaging from both of these instances creates a dynamic where the attention falls back onto the U.S. players rather than North Korea. The Rodman visits spiraled into a farcical contest of who’s crazier, Rodman or Kim Jong-un. Rogen and those working on The Interview thought the subject of North Korea was a guaranteed laugh; instead, their misperceptions led to the guarantee that their moves and responses would be more scrutinized than North Korea’s. This refocusing on Rodman and Rogen means it is less likely that more information will be obtained by the general public about North Korea as the stories seemingly devolve into even wackier circumstances. Thus, the seriousness and gravity of attempting to solve the North Korean conundrum, even if it is just a small part in that effort, is lost.
Misperceiving North Korea as an isolated, helpless country that just requires friendship or won’t get upset about disparaging depictions of its country makes things worse for interaction between the U.S. and North Korea. The mistakes made by Dennis Rodman and Seth Rogen have caused the attention to be taken off North Korea and placed back on the U.S. participants and their roles, while at the same time increasing the tension between North Korea and the United States. Two excellent channels for possible U.S.-North Korea engagement have greatly diminished, and the potential for making these same mistakes again remains. North Korea continues to defy the odds against its survival and develop technologies like nuclear weapons, missiles, and cyber attacks to provoke the U.S. and its allies in part because many still refuse to believe that North Korean can do it.
Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.
Photo from Prachatai’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.