Blood and Dementia: Rodman Blesses the Dictator

Well, it has come and passed: Dennis Rodman has, with Paddy Power’s underwriting, staged a couple rounds of basketball for Supreme Leader’s 31st (32nd? 29th? It is a mystery to all) birthday. He slunk back to the States after failing to meet with Kim Jong Un for his third visit, assembled a “dream team” of ex-NBA stars (for whom western media has spared no acid in deriding and denigrating), and returned to Pyongyang with gifts for Jong Un and the missus, and set up some basketball.

Let’s talk about those gifts, however. The NK analysis/commentary site One Free Korea has provided, through a reliable source, detailed rundown of the gifts and their worth. They include an Italian suit for Jong Un, a Mulberry handbag for Ri Sol Ju, “several hundred dollars’ worth of Irish Jameson whiskey,” and many other niceties. All of which, of course, are prohibited as luxury items (remember the ski lift?) under U.N. sanctions—admittedly, a toothless and arthritic tiger if ever there was.

Mulberry handbag
Image: Mulberry
Jameson whiskey
Image: Jameson
Italian men’s suit
Image: Corneliani

Simply owning these capitalist excesses should be odious to any loyal son of the DPRK, but the Kim dynasty has pardoned themselves many luxuries in their stint as tyrannical overlords, such as Kim Jong Il’s $700,000 a year cognac habit (while people starved in the countryside, of course). This should render Rodman eligible for a punishment of 20 years in prison or US$1M fine, but I’m betting he will see no repercussions upon his return to the States. Such as he is, he’s still a celebrity and laws are made for little people.

Anyway. The game was a present from Rodman to Supreme Leader, and so he sang “Happy Birthday” to his “friend for life”. To iterate: Dennis Rodman, all by himself and with none of his team, sang “Happy Birthday” to Jong Un. And Charles Smith, former Knicks star and de facto spokesman for the team (at least as a foil to Rodman’s dementia) has indicated Rodman is completely tone-deaf. What, more than politically?


Charles Smith, the sober voice of regret and grim determination, is my new hero.

As you know, there were two games: the first was US players vs. North Korea, and the second was a mixed match. As a matter of fact, I think that was a good idea (so it probably wasn’t Rodman’s), just to take the pressure off of one nation against another. The 14,000 in attendance looked on as Rodman improvised a speech praising the braveness of his fellow players in this “engagement mission”, according to Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours, one of the five prominent tour companies that lead the unknowing into North Korea. I was initially concerned about former NBA players trouncing all over an untried “hermit kingdom” team, but the US players were aged 42 to 53, so that probably evened things up a bit. Plus, as western media has beaten into our heads, many of them are retired alcoholics in abusive relationships. North Korea actually won the first match 47 points to 39, so good for them! Rodman even played in the first game, and certain pundits have pointed out this was the first time he bothered to take his hat and glasses off in the presence of Supreme Leader. Normally such a display of disrespect around the 31 y.o. dictator would be an unpardonable offense, but… well, even Jong Un allows certain liberties for celebrities.

Blood and Dementia: Rodman Blesses the Dictator
Rodman relaxes at the luxurious Koryo Hotel, post-game. Image: David Guttenfelder.

On the other hand, Rodman made a special batch of new enemies with his outburst at CNN’s Chris Cuomo yesterday, when he threw Chris Cuomo’s question back at him, by all accounts screaming, “I don’t give a rat’s ass what you think!” and “Do you understand what [Ken Bae] did in this country? You tell me! Why is he held captive?” This has been interpreted as blaming the victim, that the American missionary did something to deserve imprisonment in the atheist-by-law totalitarian state… uh… well. Advocates have been advocating for Bae’s release and criticizing Rodman’s aversion to using whatever pull he has to stump for their cause. Sadly related to this, GQ Magazine named Rodman their Least Influential Person of 2013.

One Free Korea compiled their misnamed Long List of People Who Think Dennis Rodman is a Tool. It’s actually a relatively short list, as it just covers the highlights. I could add to it, as could you, Astute Reader, but no names anyone might recognize.

Now, this game was for Jong Un’s birthday. How did the rest of the country celebrate the day of Supreme Leader’s birth? Treats were handed out to children, but otherwise, starving and impoverished families have seen no relief, much less cause for joy. Reportedly, they hoped for a little kickback since the most recent harvest was pretty good, but the elderly comment that the good ol’ days of the ’70s and ’80s will never be seen again.

So if the people are less than impressed with the failure to recognize their work, how do they feel about Supreme Leader entertaining his trained monkey for the benefit of their Olympic basketball team? Again, not impressed:

“A really vital part of the Kim Jong Il myth” was “that he was so busy defending the country that he really had no time for himself…”

…said B.R. Meyers, assoc. professor of int’l studies at Dongseo University. This visit may actually injure Jong Un’s image by convoluted means. The thinking is that this display of indulgence clarifies in certain people’s minds that Jong Un is actually the one in charge, as no responsible handler or puppet-master would have permitted this display to occur twice. (My thinking is that a puppet-master interested in toppling the Kim dynasty might have allowed this to pass.) At least Jong Il had the decency to keep his archival DVD collection private from the people, you know?

Blood and Dementia: Rodman Blesses the Dictator
Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours wears a medal from the “historic” NK vs. US basketball game in tribute to the dictator. Image: Simon Cockerell.

And because no bad idea, no matter how deplorable and ill-conceived, can exist unmolested but must find some supporters, there are those who try to spin or otherwise promote this event as a positive thing. Contrary to how North Koreans actually see Jong Un in the light of this event, 38 North‘s Andray Abrahamian suggests the people instead admire the openness of their leader to the world outside, that Rodman’s oversized foot is jammed in an otherwise closed door, just like they were supposed to be encouraged by Jong Un’s absorption of the Disney revue, where his wife was mistaken for his ex-girlfriend, for which confusion (in part) the latter wound up dead. As well, the otherwise respectable Andrei Lankov proposed that any benign appearance of an American in North Korea goes a long way toward ameliorating the slanderous propaganda with which children are raised in the DPRK. There’s something to be said about that, surely. Every injection from the outside world that makes its way safely through the borders and into eyeshot of the oppressed and paranoid good citizens presents an opportunity for revelation, to any small degree. I can’t argue with that.

Blood and Dementia: Rodman Blesses the Dictator
Hail the conquering tribe, blessed by Western privilege. Image: How to Go to North Korea.

I can turn it around, however, and question what it means for these Americans, these Britons, these western expatriates to routinely funnel their dollars into totalitarian coffers. Reporters and photojournalists, yes, they provide the rest of the world otherwise unobtainable images through their enhanced access. They make the victims of the dictatorial regime more human to us. But they also dine in expensive restaurants and reside in comfortable hotels and support the infrastructure to the DPRK. They bring their foreign currency into a regime with at least 120,000 innocents locked up in precisely documented labor and death camps. Far from evoking Godwin’s Law, the brutality and cruelty of Jong Un and his father has been compared to that of Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot—Supreme Leader resembles more closely the latter, in that he is not cleansing a foreign ethnicity but gleefully and wantonly persecuting his own subjects. This is the administration that tourists are so eager to break into, grinning like sick dogs before the monuments and trappings of oppression and bragging about having been there, seen it. Failing to admit they only see what they’re permitted to, and their tales of “North Korea is nothing like the media represents” fail to include accurate portrayal of the abject poverty and political intimidation, the insecurity, the desperation to flee the nation.

How does presenting a positive image to the elite in Pyongyang, far from the suffering of the rural majority of the nation, balance against tacit approval of a regime among the world’s worst in human rights violations?

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