Kim Jong Un has proven to be beneath the corporate image of the Irish online gambling company, Paddy Power, which has withdrawn from sponsoring Dennis Rodman’s basketball invitational, planned for Kim Jong Un’s birthday in January. Rodman’s mouthpiece says that he plans to continue with the game anyway, but The Simon Wiesenthal Center is asking other former NBA players to boycott the game:
“Everyone it seems, except Dennis Rodman, understands that this is not a game to promote peace, but an undeserved birthday gift to murderous tyrant who heads a regime with the worst human rights record on the planet,” charged Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and long-time activist for human rights in North Korea.
“Playing a basketball game in Pyongyang before a handful of cronies of the youthful dictator gives Kim Jong Un an undeserved birthday present that enables Kim to change the narrative for the international media from focusing attention on his execution of his uncle, on North Korea’s brutal gulag, and his nuclear missile threats against his neighbors.”
“There may yet be a time and place for basketball diplomacy in North Korea, but now is neither the time and Kim’s birthday party isn’t the place for such a gesture. We hope ex-NBAers will do the right thing,” Cooper concluded.
More from the Simon Wiesenthal Center here. This open letter by gulag survivor Shin Dong Hyok, published in The Washington Post, must have been equally or more devastating to Rodman’s project:
Mr. Rodman, I cannot presume to tell you to cancel your trip to North Korea. It is your right as an American to travel wherever you wish and to say whatever you want. It is your right to drink fancy wines and enjoy yourself in luxurious parties, as you reportedly did in your previous trips to Pyongyang. But as you have a fun time with the dictator, please try to think about what he and his family have done and continue to do. Just last week, Kim Jong Un ordered the execution of his uncle. Recent satellite pictures show that some of the North’s labor camps, including Camp 14, may be expanding. The U.N. World Food Programme says four out of five North Koreans are hungry. Severe malnutrition has stunted and cognitively impaired hundreds of thousands of children. Young North Korean women fleeing the country in search of food are often sold into human-trafficking rings in China and beyond.
If the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s call prevents Rodman from assembling a quorum for his birthday gift to Kim Jong Un, the ironic outcome of the tournament would be to galvanize public outrage against North Korea’s atrocities and shift public sentiment toward a boycott of its regime.
Ironically, I’ve come to believe that Rodman’s visits to North Korea did serious damage to Kim Jong Un. Domestically, they exploded sixty years of state propaganda that portrayed “pure” North Koreans as morally and culturally superior to corrupting and decadent foreign influences, and portrayed the “Paektu Bloodline” as the fastidious, martial, and devoted paragons of this xenophobic guerrilla state. Internationally, Kim Jong Un’s public receptions of Rodman likely shifted the still-developing consensus of foreign scholars and policy-makers to one that sees Kim Jong Un as a an impetuous bacchanalian who adopted a washed-up ex-athlete and global laughingstock as his court jester, while shunning foreign leaders, diplomats, and business leaders.
Most importantly, Rodman’s visit drew international attention to North Korea’s atrocities and cemented its reputation as the world’s worst violator of human rights. Every time Rodman visits North Korea, thousands more people visit these pages, and millions more read the dismayed reactions of people like Shin Dong Hyok and Rabbi Abraham Cooper. For Rodman, the consequence will be a reversion to the more obscure sort of infamy he’d enjoyed for the last decade. For North Korea, with its dependency on hard currency from abroad, the consequences could be far greater.