Ex-NBA Star Parties With North Korean Leader As The Country’s People Suffer

(Photo credit: VICE)

“You have a friend for life,” former NBA star Dennis Rodman told Kim Jong-un, the leader of the Stalinist and reclusive North Korea, capping a strange trip that managed to completely gloss over the plight of the North Korean people.

Rodman spent the last several days in North Korea along with a crew from VICE and three members of the Harlem Globetrotters to film an episode of a forthcoming HBO series and take part in what VICE dubbed “basketball diplomacy.” While Rodman has been known for pulling crazy stunts during and after his time on the basketball court, a visit to the most reclusive country on Earth was unexpected. The trip had more than a tinge of the ludicrous from the beginning, with Rodman tweeting out his arrival to confusion from the masses:

Rodman also tweeted that he hoped to meet Psy, the South Korean pop star, during his trip, lending to the absurdity. In the climax of the sojourn, Rodman met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to enjoy the performance of the Globetrotters in a Pyongyang stadium, before retiring to Kim’s palace, where the North Korean leader reportedly “plied the group” with food and alcohol, leading one member of Rodman’s entourage to tweet “Um … so Kim Jong Un just got the (hash)VICEonHBO crew wasted … no really, that happened.” The AP has more:

The two chatted in English, but Kim primarily spoke in Korean through a translator, [VICE founder Shane] Smith said after speaking to the VICE crew in Pyongyang.

“They bonded during the game,” Smith said by telephone from New York after speaking to the crew. “They were both enjoying the crazy shots, and the Harlem Globetrotters were putting on quite a show.”

The bond between the 6′ 7″ former NBA player and diminutive North Korean leader belies the tension between the United States and DPRK. Indeed, their improbable dialogue is the highest-level conversation between the North Korean leader and an American since Kim took power in 2011. In that time, Kim has worked to solidify his control of the isolated country, including conducting the Hermit Kingdom’s third nuclear weapons test just weeks ago.

Likewise the plight of North Korean citizens likely was not a topic of conversation between Rodman and Kim. Satellite imagery shows that one of North Korea’s many prison camps has been greatly expanded over recent years, likely due to an increase in occupants. These camps — which can now be viewed on Google maps — are home to up to 200,000 alleged political prisoners and others who require “reeducation.” Former prisoners have produced graphic drawings depicting the horror of life in these camps.

All of this doesn’t even touch issues involving the prioritization of military spending over feeding civilians or the propaganda against the United States that North Korea develops. Rodman’s trip does, though, prove that North Korea’s new 3G internet system only for foreigners is working just fine and helps bolster the government’s claim that tourism is booming. Neither of these are good things, leaving the comparison of Rodman’s visit to the “ping-pong diplomacy” of the 1970s between the U.S. and China indefensible.