Several months after the buccaneering media network Vice sponsored a February trip by Dennis Rodman and some Harlem Globetrotters to North Korea as part of an HBO mini-documentary, you can now watch the full show online. It's embedded below.
The trip ended up making international headlines for a few reasons. Most famously, Rodman spent some one-on-one time with new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, making him the most prominent Westerner ever to do so publicly. It also coincided with North Korea's third nuclear weapons test, an act of significant provocation. And the North Korean government did a great deal to play up both of those events, something that made more than a few North Korea-watchers a bit uncomfortable with Vice's decision to branch out beyond its usual adventure tourism and right into citizen diplomacy.
The Vice/Rodman trip was controversial for giving Kim something he craves deeply -- time with American basketball stars -- as well as a bit of positive publicity internally and internationally at a moment when the country was ramping up its nuclear-charged aggression. The moment in the video, at about 24:25, when Rodman declares himself Kim's "friend for life," captured for many the weirdness of the entire trip.
Any Westerner who visits North Korea, whether a simple tourist or former president Jimmy Carter, will almost certainly be exploited by the regime and made to appear as if they're kowtowing before the Kim family and North Korean greatness. The ethical question that all visitors face, and one that deeply preoccupies many North Korea scholars, is how to minimize any implicit, unintentional support for Pyongyang. Whether the Vice/Rodman trip might have crossed this line is a complicated question and an ultimately unanswerable one.
Vice argues that it helped spread some public goodwill and that the visitors' presence on state TV standing alongside Kim helped to soften North Korean views of the United States. It's possible that this is true, but it's worth noting, as virtually every North Korea scholar told me when I asked about the ethics of visiting the country, that visiting Americans are always portrayed as terrified weaklings bowing before the great leader and apologizing for their nation's heinous crimes.
Like many of Vice's videos, this one is visually impressive and at turns quite interesting. It doesn't take the most nuanced or careful view of a country with one of the world's highest-geared propaganda machines, and it spends a bit more time in wide-eyed credulity than many experienced North Korea-watchers might be comfortable with. Still, it is fascinating to have this glimpse inside the hermit kingdom, even if we're seeing a bit more of the Kim regime's view of things than the country's far grimmer reality.