The world’s least likely diplomat is at it again. Dennis Rodman is on his latest jaunt to North Korea and, this time, maybe the visit will pay off in something other than publicity, laughter and bewilderment.
Rodman, the Hall of Famer known as “The Worm,” was vague about this trip upon his arrival in Pyongyang on a flight from Beijing. “I will discuss my mission upon my return to the U.S.A.,” Rodman, pierced, tattooed and clad in a “PotCoin” T-shirt, told reporters.
The roots of the relationship between Rodman and the dictator, who was the son of the basketball-loving Kim Jong-il, extend back to 2000 when Madeleine Albright, then the secretary of state, brought a basketball signed by Michael Jordan, a teammate of Rodman’s on the Chicago Bulls, on a diplomatic trip to North Korea. Rodman arrived there the first time in February 2013, becoming one of the first Americans believed to have met Kim Jong Un, who had succeeded his father upon his death in 2011. Rodman came at the invitation of Kim and the two watched an exhibition game that featured several Harlem Globetrotters, as documented in an HBO series. Rodman returned in September of that year and again in January 2014, this time leading fellow former NBA players in an exhibition.
That was a weird trip marked by a meltdown in an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo in which Rodman emotionally defended his controversial ties to Kim and journeys to North Korea. Rodman took issue with Cuomo’s questions about the timing of that trip, which came not long after the execution of Kim’s uncle, as well as the wisdom of interacting with the dictator while Kenneth Bae, a Korean American missionary who is a U.S. citizen, was still being held there. (He was freed after almost two years in November 2014.)
“Kenneth Bae did one thing … If you understand what Kenneth Bae did. Do you understand what he did in this country? No, no, no, you tell me, you tell me,” Rodman, who was leading a group of former NBA players for an exhibition game, spluttered. “Why is he held captive here in this country, why? … I would love to speak on this. You know, you’ve got 10 guys [ex-players] here, 10 guys here, they’ve left their families, they’ve left their damn families, to help this country, as in a sports venture. That’s 10 guys, all these guys here, do anyone understand that? Christmas, New Year’s …
“I don’t give a rat’s [backside] what the hell you think. I’m saying to you, look at these guys here, look at them … they dared to do one thing, they came here.”
Rodman brushed off an attempt to calm him by one of the NBA players, Charles Smith, who later said the trip was an athletics mission and not diplomatic.
“Ain’t no shill … let me do this,” he said to Smith. Then, to Cuomo, he added: “Really? Really? I want to tell you one thing. People ’round the world, around the world, I wanna do one thing. You’re the guy behind the mic right now. We’re the guys here doing one thing. We have to go back to America and take the abuse. Do you have to take the abuse that we’re gonna take? Do you, sir, are you going to take the abuse?
“One day, one day, this door is going to open because these 10 guys here, all of us, [Doug] Christie, Vin [Baker], Dennis, Charles, … I mean everybody here, if we could open the door just a little bit for people to come here and do one thing.”
Rodman later apologized for the commends about Bae. Smith explained that it isn’t always easy being with Rodman. “Apparently our message is not being conveyed properly due to the circumstances that are much bigger than us,” Smith told the Associated Press before the exhibition game. “Dennis is a great guy, but how he articulates what goes on — he gets emotional and he says things that he’ll apologize for later.”
Although most of the NBA players sought to distance themselves from Rodman, they went through with the exhibition in Pyongyang a day later and sang “Happy Birthday” to Kim Jong Un. “It started out as surreal, then people joined in and it sort of faded a bit, but it seemed pretty heartfelt from Rodman’s side,” said Simon Cockerell, a tour guide who attended the game, (via Reuters) of Rodman’s Marilyn Monroe moment. “It was unexpected, and probably unplanned. Kim Jong Un appeared to smile, but he didn’t appear to expect it.”
Upon his return to the U.S., Rodman spent three weeks in an alcohol rehabilitation center to “decompress from all things,” rather than giving up drinking.
Now, with President Trump in the White House, there is speculation that Rodman, whose was an early endorser and appeared on Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” for two seasons, is there at the president’s behest. That’s a notion he wouldn’t address, saying only, “I’m pretty sure he’s happy at the fact I’m over here trying to accomplish something we both need.”
This being Rodman, it isn’t clear just what he is “trying to accomplish.” Maybe it’s something as simple as a big prize.
“My mission is to break the ice between hostile countries. Why it’s been left to me to smooth things over, I don’t know. Dennis Rodman, of all people,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2013. “Keeping us safe is really not my job; it’s the black guy’s [former president Obama] job. But I’ll tell you this: If I don’t finish in the top three for the next Nobel Peace Prize, something’s seriously wrong.”