Basketball Diplomacy

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and former NBA player Dennis Rodman watch a basketball game in February.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and former NBA player Dennis Rodman watch a basketball game in February.

Former NBA star Dennis Rodman made headlines during a news conference ahead of an exhibition match between several former NBA players and the North Korean national team in Pyongyang yesterday. After being asked questions about the American Kenneth Bae—who has been held by North Korean authorities for almost a year after being sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor for “hostile acts to bring down the government”—Rodman responded with a sharp defense of the North Korean regime. Rodman suggested that Bae was guilty of the charges against him. He later serenaded North Korean President Kim Jong Un with a round of “Happy Birthday,” and described Kim as his “best friend.” Rodman also defended his “basketball diplomacy” stating that, “One day, one day, [North Korea’s] door is going to open because these 10 [basketball players] here, all of us, Christie, Vin, Dennis, Charles … I mean everybody here, if we could open the door just a little bit for people to come here and do one thing.”

But Rodman’s efforts have been widely criticized. The National Basketball Association has distanced itself from Rodman’s trip, with NBA Commissioner David Stern stating that “Sports diplomacy is a wonderful thing.  But they should be done in a far more dignified fashion than this particular trip is being carried out.”

Bill Richardson, former US Ambassador to the United Nations, was more direct, nothing that he has “disappointed”  in Rodman’s outburst and stating that “I think Dennis Rodman crossed a line this morning by implying that Kenneth Bae might be guilty, by suggesting that there was a crime.”

Do you think that Rodman’s “basketball diplomacy” will make a difference in US-North Korean relations? Why? In what way? What factors make “sports diplomacy” more or less effective? Might sports be used in other contexts to facilitate diplomatic initiatives? How?

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