It's easy to laugh at former NBA star Dennis Rodman's bizarre displays in North Korea. He's a colorful character, and he does absurd stuff. So, for that matter, does his new best friend in the entire world, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. So it's only natural to expect to chuckle at Rodman's latest trip to the hermit kingdom and such antics as singing "Happy Birthday" to Kim or melting down on CNN.
But it seems that Rodman may have crossed some sort of line with latest trip. This may be the point where what he's doing stops being funny and becomes something more serious.
The issue that may have pushed Rodman's trips from punch line into actual bad-actor territory concerns Kenneth Bae. Bae is a U.S. citizen who was arrested by North Korean authorities in November 2012 while on a trip to the country and later sentenced to 15 years hard labor. According to the state-run Korean Central News Agency, he was convicted of "hostile acts," which seems most likely to mean clandestine Christian evangelizing, an extremely sensitive charge in North Korea.
Rodman, in his CNN interview this week, seemed to suggest that Bae deserved his imprisonment. That's a pretty significant reversal for Rodman, who has previously suggested he would try to free the U.S. citizen. More to the point, Rodman seems to have gone from positioning himself as an athlete-diplomat seeking to further U.S.-North Korea goodwill to presenting himself as an outright advocate for Pyongyang, at least on this issue. Here's the relevant section of Rodman's interview:
CNN’s Chris Cuomo: Are you going to take an opportunity, if you get it, to speak up for the family of Kenneth Bae?
Rodman: The one thing about politics: Kenneth Bae did one thing. If you understand. If you understand what Kenneth Bae did — do you understand what he did in this country?
Cuomo: You tell me, what did he do?
Rodman: No, no, no. You tell me, you tell me. Why is he held captive here in this country?
Cuomo: They haven’t released any charges; they haven’t released any reason.
Rodman: I would love to speak on this.
Cuomo: Go ahead.
Rodman: You got 10 guys here that have left their families, left their damn families to help this country as a sports venture. We got 10 guys, all these guys here, do anyone understand that?
Cuomo later tried again, telling Rodman, "You just basically were saying that Kenneth Bae did something wrong," a comment the basketball star did not engage with.
This stuff is not black and white. The ethics of visiting North Korea and working with its top officials can be dubious but are also defensible; it's something North Korea-watchers often debate among themselves. There's even a not-totally-disingenuous case to be made, however one-sided it may be, that North Korea has at times been the victim. (The U.S.-led bombing campaign of North Korea during the Korean War did level vast communities, for example.) I'm not defending that case, but my point is that Rodman does join some legitimate Korea scholars in taking positions that are sympathetic to the Kim regime and critical of U.S. policy on the peninsula.
The thing that's different now is that Rodman is actively championing North Korea's position on the Bae case. Bae's sister sent a statement to BuzzFeed saying: "My family and I are outraged by Rodman’s recent comments. He is playing games with my brother’s life. There is no diplomacy, only games, and at my brother’s expense."
North Korea's finely tuned propaganda apparatus has already been highly active in exploiting Rodman's visits, portraying him as "paying tribute" to the country and its government, bolstering the state's internal message that the North is a strong, prosperous nation whose greatness is universally acknowledged. Yes, it sounds silly, but it's part of how Kim stays on top of a system that includes gulags and rogue nuclear weapons. Being co-opted in that fashion is a risk every foreign visitor faces, but the degree to which Rodman has so eagerly played into it raises the possibility that he at some point crossed the line from would-be diplomat to active booster of his host's interests. Rodman alone will not determine Bae's fate, of course. But every time a prominent American visitor argues on behalf of his imprisonment, it becomes a little more attractive for Pyongyang to assert that Bae is a dangerous threat to the national order. Whatever game Rodman thinks he's playing, it's becoming one with very real stakes for at least this one U.S. citizen.