Dennis Rodman’s September trip to North Korea included a trip to Kim’s yacht near Wonsan, which Rodman described as “like going to Hawaii or Ibiza.” Evidently, this trip hasn’t been as pleasant:
A day after the former basketball star sang “Happy Birthday” to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and led a squad of former NBA players in a friendly game, Rodman issued the apology through publicist Jules Feiler in an email message to The Associated Press.
“I want to apologize,” Rodman said. “I take full responsibility for my actions. It had been a very stressful day. Some of my teammates were leaving because of pressure from their families and business associates. My dreams of basketball diplomacy was quickly falling apart. I had been drinking. It’s not an excuse but by the time the interview happened I was upset. I was overwhelmed. It’s not an excuse, it’s just the truth.
“I want to first apologize to Kenneth Bae’s family. I want to apologize to my teammates and my management team. I also want to apologize to Chris Cuomo. I embarrassed a lot of people. I’m very sorry. At this point I should know better than to make political statements. I’m truly sorry.” [AP]
Even Kim Jong Un appears to have been taken by surprise when Rodman burst into “Happy Birthday.” And Max Fisher, who often emphasizes the quirky aspects of North Korea, thinks “Rodman may have crossed some sort of line,” and has reached “the point where what he’s doing stops being funny and becomes something more serious.”
So, to summarize — Rodman has fallen off the wagon, made himself into a national pariah, driven away some of the retired players who joined his tour, hardened global attitudes against his new best pal, and quite possibly freaked out Kim Jong Un himself — which may be the most unwise thing he’s done all week.
If anyone asks Rodman what he gave Kim Jong Un for his birthday, we might also learn whether he’s also in legal trouble for violating U.S. sanctions laws.
But at least he still has Jesse Jackson, who isn’t wrong when he says that Rodman is the reason we’re talking about North Korea. And to be fair here, a lot of us have piled on Rodman for not talking about human rights, but he is, after all, just a washed-up basketball player. What people are really upset about is Rodman’s effusive and cretinous affection for a mass murderer. If Rodman had just stuck with the story that he’s not a diplomat and that’s not his job, plenty of people would have accepted that.
As Rodman implies, it’s the diplomats who are responsible for talking to Kim Jong Un about human rights. Unfortunately, Kim Jong Un isn’t willing to meet with them, and the specific person whose job it is to “promote and coordinate North Korean human rights and humanitarian issues“ is a nice, quiet man you’ve never heard of because he’s wholly ineffective in that role, because he’s trying not to rock any diplomatic boats (or, if you prefer, yachts).
But strategic silence isn’t going to change North Korea or achieve our national interests. We brought Iran back to the bargaining table by sanctioning it to the edge of extinction. Why not North Korea? Because the Obama Administration has no North Korea policy, and its sanctions against North Korea are pale shadow of our sanctions against Iran. Our sanctions against Iran were forced down the Obama Administration’s throat by Congress. Hopefully, that will happen with North Korea next.
But what then? Even when our diplomats do meet with the North Koreans, they do everything they can to sideline, bury, and marginalize the question of human rights. Rodman certainly is the easiest target here, but the smarminess of our diplomats, the incompetence of the Obama Administration, and — above all — the atrocious conduct of Kim Jong Un himself are really more deserving of serious criticism.
[Update: This post has been corrected to note that Rodman's "Ibiza" experience in Wonsan was in September 2013, and not his "last" trip to North Korea (which was in December). Oh, and it was Rodman, not Kim Jong Un, who sang "Happy Birthday" to Kim Jong Un.]