At the end of her two-day trip to North Korea in October 2000, a historic but ultimately failed effort to thaw relations, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright presented her host with a gift. The State Department officials working on the trip had put special attention into selecting and procuring the item, which they hoped might show an earnest desire for more direct talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Albright handed Kim an authentic NBA basketball signed by Michael Jordan.
“He may have been initially surprised by it, but you could tell he was pleased. I don't think he expected it. It was a very personal gesture, in a sense," a former State Department and CIA official told the San Diego Union-Tribune of Kim's reaction. “It showed him we went through some effort to get the signature. They realized it wasn't just an ordinary ball.”
The Union-Tribune's 2006 story on then-leader Kim Jong Il's love of basketball portrayed the interest as one of his lesser-known eccentricities, but still something that appeared to be of great personal importance to him.
Son and successor Kim Jong Eun, though his public image is much softer and friendlier, seems to have inherited the obsession with the American-dominated sport from his bizarre and reclusive father. NK News has an in-depth story today on Kim Jong Eun's long-held interest in basketball. But the story goes back much further.
Kim Jong Il, who spent most of his life in North Korea before inheriting the throne from his own father in 1994, was once quoted by state media as saying, "We should make our youths and workers play a lot of basketball." Kim was said to own "a video library of practically every game Michael Jordan ever played for the Bulls," according to the Union-Tribune. The story quoted a Detroit Pistons executive who had made three trips to North Korea, which has a surprisingly extensive basketball program apparently because of Kim's interest, as calling the then-leader "addicted" to the sport.
In 2001, a year after Albright's visit, the North Korean government formally invited Jordan to visit the country. Had he not decline, he would have become the first high-profile American celebrity to meet with a North Korean leader. Instead, Dennis Rodman, also a Bulls alum, took that honor this week, sitting alongside Kim Jong Eun at a basketball game.
Kim's interest in basketball has even bled into his regime's foreign policy. A State Department official leading some low-level talks in the early 1990s told the Union-Tribune that the conversation shut down completely when his North Korean counterpart realized that a Bulls game had just started. Though the North Korean official's interest in American basketball appeared earnest -- he displayed a remarkably detailed knowledge of players and past games -- it had also won him valuable personal entrees with Kim himself.
At some points during Kim Jong Il's reign, some U.S. officials even discussed the idea of sending American basketball players and coaches to Pyongyang, a sort of "basketball diplomacy" modeled after the earlier "ping-pong diplomacy" outreach with China. Obviously, that never transpired.
But Kim Jong Il actually appears to have tried this himself once, using basketball in what may have been a preciously rare instance of North Korean outreach to the United States, rather than the other way around. The country sent a 7-foot-7-inch tall North Korean basketball player named Ri Myung Hun all the way to Canada, escorted by a diplomat, a security guard and a coach. They invited NBA teams to send scouts to see him, about half of which did. Ri, who was also apparently quite talented, started going by Michael Ri, after Michael Jordan.
The State Department blocked Ri's recruitment at first, saying it would breach sanctions. By the time the agency realized that North Korea may have sent him in an act of diplomatic outreach, offering up the greatest basketball player from a country run by a basketball fanatic, it was too late. Pyongyang recalled Ri in a huff.
Kim Jong Il passed his love of the sport on to his sons, reportedly building basketball courts in every one of his many family homes around the country. The Japanese sushi chef who prepared meals for the Kim family for years before defecting wrote in his memoir that the sons played basketball frequently, often carefully analyzing the game after it was over.
When sons Kim Jong Chol and Kim Jong Eun went away to boarding school in Switzerland, posing as children of the local embassy chauffeur, they brought lots of talk about basketball with them. Fellow students described both brothers as obsessed with the game, according to the NK News story.
As a student in Switzerland, the younger brother and future leader, Kim Jong Eun, was shy everywhere except on the basketball court, The Washington Post reported in 2009. He wore Nike Air Jordans, hated to lose on the court and "spent hours doing meticulous pencil drawings of Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan," whom he "worshiped."
Kim Jong Eun's spacious apartment near campus included an entire room filled with basketball memorabilia, The Post reported, including photos of the dictator's heir-in-hiding smiling with Toni Kukoc of the Chicago Bulls and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers. This was the late 1990s, when Dennis Rodman played for the Chicago Bulls, Kim Jong Eun's favorite team. Rodman surely had no idea that he would one day travel to Pyongyang to sit court-side with Kim. But it's not hard to imagine Kim dreaming it up.