Dennis Rodman’s bizarre trip to North Korea: Is it also unethical?

February 26, 2013

American basketball star Dennis Rodman and several members of the Harlem Globetrotters are in North Korea, where they will film for a forthcoming Vice/HBO program and promote some "basketball diplomacy," including pick-up games in Pyongyang.

Whatever the trip's impact, it reminds me of a debate that I've heard many times among people who work on issues relating to North Korea: What are the ethical pros and cons of visiting the world's most oppressive country? Although there is no consensus view and a significant numer of North Korea-watchers say that visiting the country helps to open it up, I most frequently hear experts argue that tourism is unethical because it directly funds and offers free propaganda to the regime.

Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations, with whom I exchanged e-mails several months ago about the ethics of visiting North Korea, wrote back that "there are plenty of ethical dilemmas and few answers when it comes to dealing with the DPRK." He explained, "Any interaction with North Korea involves an element of moral hazard. It was a central question that dominated and polarized the humanitarian aid community from the start of its interaction with North Korea in response to the famine in the mid-1990s."

Quotes from the people who set up Rodman's visit might give you a sense of its mission, which certainly so far seems to emphasize promoting Vice and Rodman a bit more than actual track-two diplomacy. (That doesn't mean Rodman's trip must be necessarily bad, but I make this point to explain why I'm treating it as an act of tourism and commerce rather than research or diplomacy.)

“Is sending the Harlem Globetrotters and Dennis Rodman to the DPRK strange? In a word, yes,” said Vice founder Shane Smith, who visited the country in 2009 for Vice, which has made a name for itself by blending journalism with adventure tourism. “But finding common ground on the basketball court is a beautiful thing.”

Rodman's agent told the Associated Press, “When I discussed with Dennis the invite to go to North Korea and meet with Kim Jong and the Korean national basketball team as part of a documentary for HBO, he knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a fun shoot around playing basketball and would give him the chance to speak directly to Kim Jong that the only way to go is with peace not war." "Kim Jong" is presumably North Korean leader Kim Jong Eun, whom its difficult to imagine meeting with Rodman.

So is tourism to North Korea ethically good, actively unethical or in some neutral middle ground? Here's what people smarter and more knowledgable than myself have said about it.

The debate often turns on money. Trips to North Korea are expensive and must go entirely through the North Korean government, which badly needs every scrap of foreign currency it can get. Handing several thousand dollars to a regime that runs a rogue nuclear weapons program and a vast network of gulags is distasteful for obvious reasons, though some point out that this is a relatively small amount of money unlikely to determine Kim Jong Eun's ultimate fate. Either way, there are larger issues here.

Scholars like Andrei Lankov write that, because Kim Jong Eun's legitimacy rests in part on his regime's argument that North Koreans are very rich and everyone else very poor, exposing North Koreans to the truth will make them doubt their government. Lankov and others also argue that meeting foreigners can help North Koreans learn that Americans are not evil imperialists and amoral beasts, chipping away at the North's internal arguments for its military-first policies. Tad Farrell, who runs the site NKNews and hosts tourist trips into the country, says it can help the individual North Koreans who rely on tourism for income.

Several months ago I also asked B.R. Myers, a scholar who has done research in North Korea, about the ethics of tourism. "Many tourists -- and all of the foreign tour operators -- assuage their consciences by telling themselves they are furthering the cause of peace or reform by building trust, breaking down barriers, and so on," Myers told me over e-mail. "This is nonsense."

"For one thing," Myers wrote, "all the tourists are talking to the same tiny bunch of hardened cadres, guides and spies. For another, individual interactions, however friendly they might be, neither reflect nor have the slightest effect on how people feel as members of one group, race or nation vis a vis another."

Myers, like other North Korea-watchers who have visited the country but discourage tourists from going, didn't let himself off the hook. "I don't feel my travel there is 100% ethically sound, by the way," he wrote. He, like others who generally discourage travelers, suggested that the benefits of seeing the country firsthand likely allow, ethically speaking, for maybe one trip. Here's more from our e-mail exchanges:

What many American travelers overlook is that by respectfully visiting North Korean tourist sites in view of the locals, they are serving to reinforce the personality cult, just as those foreigners did in earlier decades who allowed themselves to be photographed while grinning down at one of Kim Il Sung's books. It is even worse when Americans succumb, as far too many do, to their guides' pressure to bow to a monument or lay plastic flowers at one. To the groups of schoolchildren standing around this is a manifestation of American tribute or penance.

I heard a variation of this concern from some (but not all) North Korea-watchers when Google chief Eric Schmidt visited: that his presence, no matter what critical he things he said, would unintentionally bestow legitimacy on the Kim Jong Eun regime, which would portray his trip as a show of tribute. Rodman might be used to do the same, particularly if Pyongyang exploits his willingness to put on public "basketball diplomacy" shows for North Korean officials.

Some North Korea-watchers also raise the delicate issue of race. North Korea's state ideology is deeply engrained in race and the idea of racial purity. Case in point, one Pyongyang man shouted, when he saw Rodman on the street, "He looks like a monster!” Seeing several very tall African-American men who are also friendly, sophisticated and plainly wealthy (even on his worst day, Dennis Rodman is leagues above what North Korean propaganda tells its citizens to expect) might put a big hole in that propaganda.

Still, Muhammed Ali's 1995 visit didn't seem to have any demonstrable effect on North Koreans' willingness to absorb state propaganda, although Ali did not exactly acquit himself as a diplomat.

So much of the conversation about whether or not it's ethical to visit North Korea is ultimately unanswerable because it's about making tiny and unmeasurable changes within a massive system. Will talking to a few North Koreans in Pyongyang, home of the most loyal citizens, change any minds? Will standing in front of a giant Kim Il Sung statue? Does handing over two or three thousand dollars go to the weapons program, to gulag fence-mending or to buy medicine? We can't really know, but the answers people give to these questions can sometimes tell you a great deal about how they view North Korea. In Dennis Rodman's case, he seems optimistic.

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Max Fisher | February 26, 2013