Why Obama can’t just call Kim Jong Eun, as Dennis Rodman suggested


Dennis Rodman on ABC's "This Week." (ABC)

Dennis Rodman famously (infamously?) offered President Obama a piece of diplomatic advice in his first public appearance since returning from North Korea.

"He wants Obama to do one thing: Call him,” Rodman said of Kim Jong Eun on ABC’s “This Week.” “He said, ‘If you can, Dennis – I don’t want [to] do war. I don’t want to do war.’ He said that to me.”

A phone call sounds like a small, simple request in the grand scheme of U.S.-North Korean diplomatic maneuvering. But perhaps Rodman doesn't realize it would also undermine the State Department's long-standing policy toward North Korea -- which relies largely on avoiding those kinds of direct talks, except under very specific circumstances.

That isn't to say the U.S. hasn't dealt directly with North Korea -- the State Department engaged in bilateral talks from July 2011 to February 2012, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, after the North indicated it might halt nuclear tests. (That was a major shift from the Bush Administration, who avoided direct talks almost entirely from 2002 on.)

But when the U.S. and North Korea last met in February 2012, it ended in disappointment -- Pyongyang tried to launch a satellite mere weeks later, in direct violation of an agreement to trade disarmament for food. And though North Korea has since tried to provoke the U.S. into new bilateral talks, Reuters reports, the State Department has not responded except to threaten further sanctions.

In the words of The Atlantic's Dashiell Bennett, "American diplomats are not interested in being played for fools twice."

To further complicate matters, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a May 2012 speech that new talks with North Korea hinged, in part, on that country feeding and educating its citizens. But the White House has since criticized Kim Jong Eun for doing the exact opposite -- most recently, on Rodman's visit.

"Instead of spending money on celebrity sporting events to entertain the elites of that country, the North Korean regime should focus on the well-being of its own people, who have been starved, imprisoned and denied their human rights,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Monday.

That echoes comments State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell made in a press briefing on Feb. 28. Asked if the department considers Rodman's trip a human rights issue, Ventrell said: "Our concern is that the regime spends money on this kind of entertainment and not on feeding its own people ... We want the regime to feed its own people, to take care of them, absolutely."

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · March 4, 2013