When it comes to foreign basketball superstars who have visited North Korea, one player used to tower above all others: 6-foot-7, five-time NBA champion Dennis Rodman. But as of this week, there’s a new and (quite literally) bigger name in town.
Yao Ming, the 7-foot-6 former NBA player who now serves as chairman of the Chinese Basketball Association, arrived in Pyongyang on Monday as part of a high-level delegation from China. The one-time Houston Rockets center took to the court after a friendly game between Chinese and North Korean players Tuesday, offering congratulations to both sides.
The Chinese delegation’s visit to North Korea comes as the United States is planning for a second summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump. On Wednesday, China released a document that called for a relaxation of sanctions against North Korea — a key part of the Trump administration’s pressure on North Korea.
Kim Il Guk, North Korea’s minister of Physical Culture and Sports, said that Tuesday’s game would “contribute to deepening the friendship and solidarity” between Beijing and Pyongyang, according to a North Korean state media.
The Chinese delegation’s visit to North Korea came as Beijing was widely seen as part of a bid to improve its relationship with Pyongyang. Nationalist newspaper Global Times said the visit was the most prominent one in recent years and that it fit into North Korea’s pattern of “basketball diplomacy.”
“Yao is a star among North Koreans,” Lu Chao, a research fellow at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, told the newspaper — later adding that the Chinese player would probably have a bigger impact than Rodman in North Korea.
However, the Associated Press reported that Kim Jong Un did not attend Tuesday’s game.
Rodman’s unexpected diplomatic turn may be hard to beat. The American player first traveled to Pyongyang in 2013 as part of a trip organized by Vice Media. At an exhibition game that featured three Harlem Globetrotters, he befriended North Korea’s Kim — known to be a personal fan of the Chicago Bulls, where Rodman spent three seasons. Rodman later said Kim was a “friend for life.”
Rodman has since traveled to North Korea four more times. His most recent visit was in June 2017, when tensions between the United States and North Korea over the latter’s weapons testing were especially high. There was speculation during that trip that Rodman might be acting as an unofficial envoy for the Trump administration, though members of the administration denied this.
After Trump and Kim met in Singapore for a summit June 12, Rodman said he did not want any credit for helping to bring the two nations together. “If Trump wants the credit, he can take all the credit. He can have it all. I just want them to talk,” Rodman said during a television interview hours after the summit.
While it was high-profile, the June U.S.-North Korea summit failed to flesh out the details of a denuclearization deal. On Tuesday, Trump said that he was planning a second summit with Kim for the near future. “Timing won’t be too far away,” he told reporters at the White House.
Tensions between North Korea and China, long-standing allies, have increased in recent years as China endorsed and implemented U.N. Security Council sanctions that squeezed the North Korean economy. However, as talks with the United States progressed, Kim made a number of visits to China, and there has been speculation that Chinese leader Xi Jinping will make a visit to North Korea in return.
On Wednesday, China, Russia and North Korea released a joint statement that called on the U.N. Security Council to “adjust” the current sanctions on North Korea.
“The three parties also oppose unilateral sanctions,” the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement released the day after the three countries' deputy foreign ministers held talks in Moscow.
Sports diplomacy has become a key factor of dealing with North Korea in recent years — and it hasn’t been limited to basketball. The detente in inter-Korean relations began when North Korea sent a delegation to the Winter Olympic Games that were held in February in PyeongChang, South Korea.