A few days into former American basketball star Dennis Rodman's bizarre and apparently impromptu trip to North Korea, Chinese state media have reported that Rodman actually met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Eun.
The two reportedly sat next to one another during a (tied!) basketball game between North Korean players and visiting members of the Harlem Globetrotters. According to Xinhua, they "talked directly to each other and laughed" throughout the game and without an interpreter. So Kim definitely speaks English.
Rodman reportedly said, "Although relations between the two countries are regrettable, personally I am a friend of Marshal Kim Jong Un and the DPRK people."
I admit to being very, very surprised by this report. I can only think of two other incidents in 60 years of North Korean history in which an American celebrity has met personally with the nation's leader, and both of them were former American presidents on high-level diplomatic missions: Jimmy Carter in 1994 and Bill Clinton in 2009. Typically, high-profile Americans just don't visit the country; if they do, as Google chief Eric Schmidt did recently or Muhammad Ali in 1995, they definitely don't get a meeting with the leader.
Unless I'm mistaken, for an American celebrity to meet personally with North Korea's leader is totally unprecedented, which is why I cast earlier doubt on whether the meeting would actually happen. (Another reason I doubted it would happen is that Rodman's agent, in announcing the meeting, called the North Korean leader "Kim Jong.") And it gets even crazier than that, based on Xinhua's report of events. The idea of Kim speaking English and hanging out with an American star is so out of character with the Kim regime that, until this gets independently reported by another outlet, I'm going to take the story with a big grain of salt. (Update: AP has the story, see below.)
There are other suspicious details in the story. The Harlem Globetrotters tie with the North Korean basketball team? Rodman refers to Kim by his formal title of "marshal?"
But maybe it shouldn't be so surprising. Although Kim has maintained or even deepened North Korea's worst and most significant practices -- the nuclear program and the gulag system -- he has softened the country's restrictions on foreign culture. Disney-like characters were allowed on TV, the Rocky theme was performed publicly, women were granted the right to wear pants. It's not changing life significantly within the country, but it does show an affinity for Western culture and a certain embrace of its presence.
And Kim appears to be a big fan of American basketball in general and the Chicago Bulls, for which Rodman once played, in particular. Gawker recently unearthed an old photo that purportedly shows the young Kim wearing a Bulls jersey while he was secretly enrolled in a Swiss boarding school. And Kim has been described as a fanatic for the Bulls. (Update: Gawker now says the photo is actually of Kim's younger brother, not the North Korean leader himself.)
If Kim really loves basketball that much and really wanted to meet Dennis Rodman, why not use his power and influence as supreme dictator of a police state to make that happen? You wonder, though, if this might cost Kim some legitimacy within the ranks of his ideologically hard-line regime. But, if it does, he can always conduct another nuclear test to recultivate internal legitimacy.
Update: The Associated Press is now also carrying this story, citing a spokesman for the Vice media company that's touring with Rodman. The source says Rodman told Kim, "You have a friend for life." He also says the American and North Korean basketball players were on mixed teams, which could help explain the tied score.