When Dennis Rodman first met Kim Jong-un in 2013 as part of an exhibition basketball tournament that the former NBA star organised in Pyongyang, few could have imagined that five short years later, Rodman’s former reality television co-star Donald Trump would be the first sitting US President to meet a DPRK head of state who happened to also be Rodman’s personal friend Kim Jong-un. But this is now the reality and it is a reality that Dennis Rodman has helped to bring about through his use of basketball diplomacy.
There is no doubt that Kim’s restored relations with China at a time when China is on the road to becoming the greatest economic superpower in history, along with Russia’s consistent diplomatic efforts with both Korean states, in addition to the arrival of the peace-minded Moon Jae-in as President of South Korea have helped to push the peace process as far as it has come. But before any of this happened there was Dennis Rodman, an apolitical individual who found not only a way to break the ice between the United States and the DPRK, but someone who shared a common passion with the DPRK head of state who otherwise appeared remote from American culture.
Kim Jong-un’s love of basketball helped the world to see a side of Kim that many did not know previously existed. His surprisingly public and photogenic friendship with Rodman further illustrated that which South Korean officials recently revealed, namely that Kim is a good humoured, intelligent leader who is able to poke fun at himself while engaging in straightforward and practical discussions with others.
It was said that ping-pong tournaments between China and the United States in the early 1970s helped to open the People’s Republic to relations with Washington that previously shunned east Asia’s largest state. The so-called “ping-pong diplomacy” paved the way for US President Richard Nixon’s meeting with Chinese leader Mao Zedong and set the stage for the US officially recognising the People’s Republic as the one true Chinese state at the end of the decade.
In many ways, Dennis Rodman’s heterodox dress sense and self-described lack of diplomatic skills have made many commentators and diplomats reticent to give Rodman the credit for doing what American ping-pong players did with China in the 1970s. But in reality, if anything Rodman was even more important than his 1970s counterparts. While ping-pong helped bring American sportsmen and Chinese sportsmen closer together, Rodman’s personal friendship with Kim Jong-un means that Rodman has a better personal understanding of the DPRK head of state than just about any US diplomat. What’s more is that rather than talking about nuclear weapons or trade, Rodman talked with Kim about personal matters which are often far more helpful in establishing international trust than one might imagine.
In all fairness to Rodman’s diplomatic skills, according to the basketball star himself, he told both Barack Obama and Donald Trump to pick up the phone and call Kim because as Kim told Rodman long before the present peace process that he was ready to speak to Washington. At long last, the phone lines between Washington and Pyongyang are ringing one another and what’s more is that when Kim and Trump meet they will have at least one thing in common, they both know Dennis Rodman.
As Rodman was a guest on Donald Trump’s television show The Apprentice, he is in a unique position among all individuals in the wider world. Rodman’s relationship with both Trump and Kim predates Kim’s first meeting with Chinese President Xi as well as his first meeting with South Korean President Moon. Likewise Rodman’s relationship with Donald Trump long predates visits to Pyongyang by the current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who also only met Trump long after the current US leader had worked on a popular television show with Dennis Rodman.
With Dennis Rodman confirming that he intends to be in Singapore during the 12 June Kim-Trump summit, there is now a chance for Rodman to attend a casual session of the lengthy summit with both Kim and Trump. I’m not suggesting that Rodman should be privy to discussions regarding a peace treaty to end the Korean War nor should he author a document on de-nuclearisation, but he can certainly partake in a session with the two heads of state in order to demonstrate that a peace process inaugurated with basketball diplomacy ought to come full circle, thus demonstrating to the world that there is more to difficult negotiations than threats, bargaining and tight lipped deal making. Culture and sport also play a vital role in any bilateral relationship and Dennis Rodman can proudly say that he saw it coming before anyone else had done.