SEOUL, South Korea Landing an audience with Kim Jong Un, the leader of one of the world's most reclusive countries, is not easy.
When President Barack Obama secretly sent envoys last summer with a warning against new nuclear and rocket tests and an offer of a thaw in relations, they found themselves meeting only with functionaries, according to current and former government officials.
And the few Western diplomats who live in Pyongyang are desperate enough for one-on-one meetings that a British envoy rode on the same roller-coaster as Kim, who shocked the diplomatic corps with invitations to Rungna People's Pleasure Ground. The British foreign office later said that any engagement was "vital."
Even Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor who has visited the North eight times, was locked out of a meet and greet with the third Kim in the family dynasty this year when he visited Pyongyang with Google's Eric Schmidt, whose own Silicon Valley star power was supposed to prove irresistible to the young leader.
Enter Dennis Rodman, the tattooed, lip-studded former NBA star, who not only got a meeting with Kim, but proclaimed him a "friend for life" while watching a basketball game during which the two conversed in English. (Kim's was said to be limited.) In photos that have gone viral, the two men were seen laughing together.
Rodman made the trip to the North with Vice Media, which is producing an HBO series, but there was no guarantee that Kim would see him, even though the young leader is known to be a die-hard basketball fan.
Rodman and his traveling companions are now the only Americans known to have met Kim since he took power more than a year ago.
The North Korean leader is facing the prospect of new sanctions from the West over his first, and the country's third, nuclear test. The only high-level officials Kim has met while in office, experts say, are from China, the nation that keeps North Korea alive with shipments of food and oil.
Why Rodman? The meeting fit with a longtime pattern of frequently unconventional and always well-choreographed encounters with the Kim family, usually accompanied by a blitz of Cold War-style propaganda.
"The Pyongyang basketball match was a great PR arena for Kim Jong Un," said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea specialist in Dongguk University in Seoul, who said the young leader could present himself as open-minded to his own people while signaling to the West that he is "not a bad boy" and not as isolated as the United States might wish.
And while the choice of Rodman might seem odd to some, Richardson said in an interview Friday that it was not surprising given Kim's love of basketball. (Richardson said he was asked by North Korean officials in recent months to persuade Michael Jordan to visit.)
Those foreign diplomats posted in Pyongyang rarely get to glimpse the supreme leader. They were invited to the annual New Year's Eve festivities at the palace this year a half-hour before they began, barely giving enough time to don formal wear.
Even though Rodman is no diplomat, Richardson said the Rodman visit could be valuable given the lack of good intelligence about a man whose nuclear arsenal and visceral anti-Americanism makes him a threat.
"Any information about Kim Jong Un, his mannerisms, his ability to speak English, his personal assessment, is valuable," said Richardson. "He is their leader, and in our visit, he had lots of support."
The State Department was not nearly so sanguine. Despite repeated questions on the trip and whether the government would debrief Rodman on his return, on Thursday a department spokesman, Patrick Ventrell, did not suggest a visit to Washington was in the offing.
"We haven't been in touch with this party at all," he told reporters, without uttering Rodman's name. "If there are Americans who after traveling in North Korea want to get in touch with us or have something to share with us, we take the phone calls."
Vice, which is known for its provocative coverage, conceived of the basketball public relations stunt to help gain access to the country. Having heard of Kim's basketball passion, Vice asked Rodman and three Harlem Globetrotters to travel to Pyongyang and asked the Globetrotters to perform in an exhibition game.
Vice has said part of the purpose of the trip was "basketball diplomacy," an apparent allusion to the pingpong diplomacy that helped open U.S. relations with China decades ago.
But even when China and the United States were deeply estranged, China did not threaten to trigger a nuclear "holocaust" or release a video showing the U.S. president bathed in flames. North Korea has done both, just in the last month.