Dennis Rodman returning to N. Korea to free Kenneth Bae: Could it actually work?

May 10, 2013

Dennis Rodman hugs North Korean leader Kim Jong Eun in a photo released by North Korea's KCNA news agency. (Reuters/KCNA)

When a TMZ reporter confronted former basketball star Dennis Rodman on the street to ask whether he still communicates with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whom he met in a February trip to the hermit kingdom, Rodman responded, "Oh, absolutely." He also said that he would be returning to the country Aug. 1.

Rodman also pledged to help release U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae, who is imprisoned by North Korea and has been sentenced to 15 years hard labor for charges that include preaching Christianity and undermining the state. "I'm gonna try to get the guy out," Rodman said. Earlier this week, he tweeted his request that Kim "do me a solid" and release Bae.

Will it work? The good news is that, in the past, North Korea has used detained Americans as leverage for concessions from the U.S., often in the form of a high-profile American visitor, which is great propaganda for the leadership. The bad news is that, famous though Rodman is, he might not be the right kind of famous.

North Korea has detained five other Americans since 2009, all of whom it later released. Here's a list of the detained Americans, followed by the U.S. official whose visit helped secure their release:

Journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, arrested 2009. Freed after visit from former President Bill Clinton.

Activist Robert Park, arrested 2009. Per his own request before entering the country, no officials publicly visited North Korea to win his release. He was tortured extensively before release and remains psychologically troubled.

Teacher and possible missionary Aijalon Mahli Gomes, arrested 2010. Released after a visit by former President Jimmy Carter; also aided by unnamed Swedish diplomats in Pyongyang.

Businessman and possible missionary Eddie Jun Yong-su, arrested 2011. Released after visit from "a delegation from Washington led by envoy Robert King," a U.S. State Department diplomat who focuses on North Korea.

Looking through this list, it's tough to know whether Rodman would be enough to secure Bae's release. The North Koreans know that he's more famous than Robert Ford, but they seem to value an official visit – the appearance of the imperialist Americans made to pay tribute to Kim and his greatness – above those of mere celebrities. But Kim does love basketball and his decision to meet publicly with Rodman was highly unusual, a suggestion of how much he values meeting the basketball star. Still, Rodman has given every indication of a desire to return since leaving the country, so Kim probably would not have to release Bae for more face time with the former Bulls star.

Rodman, when speaking off the cuff to TMZ, seemed to believe that President Obama should personally visit North Korea to free Bae, something no sitting U.S. president has ever done. "I don't know why he won't go talk to him," he said, appearing to argue that Obama should meet with Kim personally.

You have to wonder: Where did Rodman get the idea that Obama should visit North Korea and meet with Kim? Is it something he arrived at himself, or did he maybe pick it up in the regular conversations with Kim he claims to have? If this issue is coming up in their chats, that would suggest Kim could be angling for Obama to visit, an unlikely request.

August, when Rodman says he will visit, is a long way from now. Bae, first arrested in November, will have been detained for almost a year. The journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling were held for five months, Eddie Jun Yong-su for six, Aijalon Mahli Gomes for seven. How long will Bae need to hold out?

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Max Fisher · May 10, 2013