By Nicholas Hamisevicz
Last week former NBA player Dennis Rodman, along with three members of the Harlem Globetrotters and Vice Media, traveled to North Korea to play and promote basketball as well as hang out with the new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. On Sunday, Dennis Rodman talked about his trip with George Stephanopoulos on “This Week.” Rodman’s answers in his interview with George Stephanopoulos illustrates that he doesn’t understand the larger picture of U.S.-North Korea relations, and he doesn’t care. His visit and his conveying of messages from Kim Jong Un to President Obama didn’t help the larger picture for U.S. relations with North Korea. Kim Jong Un’s responses to U.S. offers of engagement with missile and nuclear tests effect the relationship more that his love of basketball.
The big news from the interview is that Kim Jong Un supposedly told Dennis Rodman that he would like President Obama to call him. With the U.S.-North Korea relationship in a poor state right now, some in the media and policy world will see this as an opportunity for the U.S. to respond to North Korea. However, this statement from Kim Jong Un via Dennis Rodman could put pressure on the U.S. to do something. There will be a sentiment that North Korea is reaching out to the United States. Yet the main thrust behind the offer is power and politics. North Korean leadership understands that the U.S. and its allies are currently trying to put pressure on the international community to do more against North Korea in response to its nuclear test. The North Korean leadership also understands there are prominent Chinese commentaries questioning China’s relationship with North Korea. By requesting President Obama call him, Kim Jong Un and his leadership team are trying to force the focus on the United States to respond to their overture rather than North Korea stopping its missile and nuclear programs.
In the interview, Dennis Rodman tried to excuse his behavior and that of his “friend” Kim Jong Un by saying everything is about politics. But President Obama knows the real effect of politics with North Korea. He used his political capital, which is part of his power, to try to engage North Korea. Throughout his campaign for president and then after taking office in 2009, President Obama and his team made it clear they would be willing to reach out to problematic leaders of the world if they would unclench their fist. North Korea took its fist and slammed it down on the button to launch a missile four months into President Obama’s presidency and followed it up with a nuclear test.
Risking political capital in an election year, the Obama administration signed a bilateral agreement with North Korea on February 29, 2012 in which the U.S. offered food aid in exchange for a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests. Kim Jong Un couldn’t even wait two weeks before announcing a missile test disguised as a satellite launch, and launched it on April 12. Despite breaking the deal, President Obama again said the U.S. would give North Korea an “extended hand.” This came just after he was elected for a second term when he traveled to Burma and while North Korea appeared to be gearing up for another missile launch. Kim Jong Un responded to President Obama’s offer of an extended hand with that rocket test that put a satellite into orbit in December 2012.
Once more, President Obama signaled the possibility for better relations when he stated in his second inaugural address that “engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.” Kim Jong Un couldn’t even wait a month before having North Korea test a nuclear device. The Obama administration has used some of its political capital to engage North Korea, and North Korea slapped them away. Now, Kim Jong Un wants a phone call.
When asked what he learned about Kim Jong Un, Dennis Rodman said his “friend” loves power and control. As much as Rodman thinks it is a nice gesture, Kim Jong Un hosting him and the Globetrotters and then asking President Obama for a phone call is mainly about power and control, not about actual engagement. The main example was highlighted last month with Eric Schmidt’s visit to North Korea, one month after North Korea tested a rocket. The visit was portrayed to the international community as North Korea trying to open up to the outside world, but internally, the North Korean media barely mentioned the visit. Perhaps they even subtlety bashed Eric Schmidt and Bill Richardson. The propaganda machine would be in full force if the leader of the free world called Kim Jong Un. Kim Jong Un and the North Korean leadership are using Rodman’s visit and the offer of a phone call to shift the blame to the United States and go unpunished for its own actions of testing a nuclear device.
Dennis Rodman tried to describe his visit as historic. However, his engagement with Kim Jong Un was only small part of a larger and complex relationship between the U.S. and North Korea. George Stephanopoulos was correct in telling Rodman that basketball is just “one tiny bit of common ground.” Small efforts like tourism can in the long run possibly lead to bigger things. Basketball may be a great bridge for connections. Koryo Tours has already led basketball and other sports groups to North Korea, and others will likely try to do so after this visit as well. One possibility would be to have the whole Harlem Globetrotters team go over. However, one basketball game that ended in a tie is not going to immediately open things up. The trip was a small gesture. A phone call from President Obama to a country that threatens U.S. allies and interests in Asia and is getting closer to directly threatening the United States with its most recent rocket and nuclear tests would be a very large step that should not be undertaken. The Obama administration rightly said that North Korea knows how to contact them.
The trip with Dennis Rodman to North Korea was described by Vice co-founder Shane Smith as a “crazy story,” but it should not dramatically affect the overall political relationship between the two sides because Kim Jong Un is are using the trip and the phone call for power and control. The North Korean leadership has to expect potential sanctions and hardening of diplomatic positions after its nuclear test. The visit and phone call request is an attempt to shift the pressure to the United States, hoping that heightened tensions will increase the public pressure on President Obama to respond to its attempted charm offensive. As much as he loves basketball, President Obama should know that lasting engagement is tougher than talking hoops over the phone with Kim Jong Un. President Obama and the United States have offered North Korea real opportunities for engagement, but Kim Jong Un has rejected them.
Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.
Photo from Storm Crypt’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.