When Dennis Rodman announced last week that he’d be in town for the historic Singapore summit to “offer whatever support is needed” to his pals President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the rest of the world predictably went “huh?” But the five-time NBA champion is no stranger to Pyongyang — or to inserting himself into complex world affairs.
The original bad boy of basketball has been making a not-so-quiet impact on North Korean relations with the United States since 2013, traveling to the isolated nation to meet with its oppressive leader and noted basketball fan. In the beginning, Rodman wholeheartedly rejected the role of foreign emissary, telling reporters pointedly, “I am not a diplomat.” But if it looks like a diplomat and tweets like a diplomat, is it a diplomat?
His trips have been sponsored by a media company, an online gambling outfit and, most recently, a marijuana cryptocurrency company. He’s broken news (confirming the Kims had a baby girl) and even been credited for the release of an American prisoner. Rodman, the always outspoken and flamboyant former NBA all-star, might just be the real deal.
Rodman’s first visit to Pyongyang was in early 2013 and courtesy of Vice Media, which filmed the athlete’s trip to the authoritarian state to watch an exhibition basketball game featuring three Harlem Globetrotters. The event was branded “basketball diplomacy.” (Apparently, Kim is a big fan of the ’90s Chicago Bulls, for whom Rodman played three seasons.) After that hang, Rodman declared in several interviews that the dictator was his “friend for life” and a “great guy,” and he suggested that then-President Barack Obama call Kim on the telephone.
In May 2013, Rodman publicly asked “the Supreme Leader of North Korea” to do him “a solid” and “cut Kenneth Bae loose.” Bae, a Korean American Christian missionary who was detained after crossing the border in 2012, had been sentenced to 15 years at hard labor. But just a few months later, Rodman visited his bud Kim once again, telling reporters that he planned to “try to bridge a gap with Americans and North Korea” while simultaneously insisting that he was no diplomat, and that his goal was to train North Korean players and establish a league there. “I want to talk about basketball,” he added — and not about Bae.
However, Rodman would eventually change his tune — again — and use his powers for good. Kind of. After suggesting during a CNN interview in 2014 that Bae may have deserved his fate, Rodman quickly apologized, saying, “At this point, I should know better than to make political statements.” (And that he had also been drinking.)
All the hoopla turned the tide in Bae’s favor, and he eventually was released, even thanking Rodman for the assist: “Because [of] his rant, media attention to my plight was increased.”
More trips and exhibitions came and went. In 2014, Rodman infamously led the crowd gathered to watch a game between North Korean players and some retired NBA players in singing “Happy Birthday” to Kim, who was in attendance. He even appeared to bow to Kim during that event.
The month President Trump was inaugurated, Rodman traveled to Pyongyang and gave Trump’s business book “The Art of the Deal” to North Korean Sports Minister Kim Il Guk. And though the Trump administration has repeatedly stated that Rodman did and does not have an official diplomatic role, that doesn’t mean the Basketball Hall of Famer doesn’t take credit for this week’s historic meeting.
During an emotional interview Monday with CNN, Rodman, who is still in Singapore, openly wept as he recounted his journey.
“I’m so happy,” said Rodman, wearing a Make American Great Again hat and a black T-shirt promoting PotCoin, the company sponsoring his trip.
“I said to everybody the door will open,” he continued. “It’s amazing, when I said those … things, when I went back home, I got so many death threats … and I believed in North Korea … I couldn’t even go home. I had to hide out for 30 days … but I kept my head up high, brother. I knew things would change.”
In the era of a reality star turned world leader, Rodman seems like the diplomat America deserves. When Kim Kardashian West and Sylvester Stallone can push the needle on serious issues such as prison-sentence reform, who’s to say Rodman can’t get a piece of the Nobel Peace Prize?