Former NBA star Dennis Rodman told reporters on Monday that all the proceeds from his controversial basketball game in North Korea would go towards a North Korean charity for the deaf, a claim that neither his agent nor the trip’s sponsor knew anything about.
This week’s trip marks Rodman’s fourth journey to North Korea, the latest in a string that has been borne of a surprising relationship between the former Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls player and Kim Jong Un, the country’s leader since 2011. “Just to even have us here, it’s an awesome feeling. I want these guys here to show the world, and speak about North Korea in a great light,” Rodman told the Associated Press upon landing. “I hope people will have a different view about North Korea.”
To that end, Rodman continued, proceeds from the game would go to a charity for the deaf in North Korea. The opacity of both the DPRK and the trip itself makes it difficult to verify the accuracy of that claim. For starters, related to the proceeds themselves, ThinkProgress reached out to Paddy Power, an Ireland-based bookmaking website and the sponsor of Rodman’s trip, to learn more. Paddy Power said that it had scaled back its involvement with the excursion. In a statement regarding that pullback, released in December, the betting site noted the international disdain for the DPRK as why it was ending its association. “It was really a reaction to the worldwide focus and total condemnation of the North Korean regime over recent events,” the statement said. “We don’t want to be associated with that.” According to Sky News, the firm is still paying for the trip, to fulfill contractual obligations.
Paddy Power’s spokesperson instead pointed to Rodman’s representatives at Prince Marketing Group for comment. When reached, a representative initially told ThinkProgress, “I don’t have anything for you” related to Rodman’s claims. A follow-up email with more detailed questions related to the amount of proceeds expected to be donated went unanswered as of press time. Given the state of the DPRK’s economy, it also remains unclear precisely who would be paying for admission to the exhibition basketball game between the American and North Korean players to generate the proceeds Rodman says will be donated.
As for the other part of Rodman’s announcement, it’s difficult to track down just what charity he may have meant. The most likely candidate is the North Korean-based Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled (KFPD), which has worked with several international NGOs on issues surrounding the deaf. The World Federation for the Deaf in 2011 signed a memorandum of understanding with KFPD to “develop cooperation between the two organisations with the view of further improving the living conditions and equal opportunities of deaf people in all fields including deaf education, deaf culture, arts and deaf sports.”
Handicap International (HI), another organization devoted to improving the lives of the disabled, worked closely with KFPD for a time, but according to its website is still determining their relationship moving forward. This came after the North Korean government in 2005 announced that the country no longer needed international aid in this area. The same site notes that members of the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs also serve alongside KFPD staff and HI’s two full-time workers, a testament to the lack of independence KFPD likely has in operating in the Stalinist country.
And while British NGO Action for Deafness hosted a delegation from KFPD in July to help provide training for North Korean doctors to diagnose and treat auditory disabilities, attempts to discern whether other local deafness groups exist came up empty. KFPD also does not provide contact information, making confirmation of whether it is expecting a new windfall all the more difficult.
Rodman has for months billed his trips as an example of “basketball diplomacy,” something that the U.S. government has been quick to explain is not officially sanctioned. This time around, former NBA players and All-Stars including Kenny Anderson, Cliff Robinson and Vin Baker join Rodman in flying to the Hermit Kingdom. ThinkProgress was unable to reach representatives for any of the former ball players for comment about the charitable aspect of the game. Former New York Knicks player Charles D. Smith did tell reporters upon his arrival that he hoped that the game would foment new ties between the U.S. and DPRK. “It’s new being here, but overall the concept is not new,” Smith said. “The team is made up of a lot of guys who really care, that’s the most important, it’s not about bringing dream-teamers. It’s about guys who are coming that want to be a part of this, that care, and really that care about humanity.”
Caring for humanity does not usually come to mind when discussing North Korea, given the widespread human rights violations it is more commonly known for. Its relationship with the disabled is one that has troubled outside observers for years, a stigma they have been attempting to lift in recent years. Pyongyang in 2013 signed — but has not yet ratified — the Convention for the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) and in 2012 for the first time attended the Paralympic Games when they were hosted in London.
But as defector Lee Aeran told Radio Free Asia in 2007, during the rule of Kim’s father Kim Jong Il, life for those born with disabilities is a harsh one. Though those disabled in combat are honored, even the families of disabled children aren’t allowed to live in the capital city, Pyongyang, instead facing expulsion. “Disabled babies are seen as persona non grata in Pyongyang, and their families are banished from the capital city and forced to relocate in rural areas,” she said, a claim backed by the U.S. State Department.
“The disabled are thus forced to live in a difficult environment that does not provide for their special needs, and that makes North Korea a terrible place to live for persons living with a disability,” Lee continued. Whether the proceeds Rodman claims will be donated will help alleviate this climate of intolerance and repression remains to be seen.