Foon Rhee

Editorial notebook: Dennis Rodman’s ‘basketball diplomacy’ is no laughing matter

I was trying my best to ignore Dennis Rodman’s escapades in North Korea since no matter how much a fool he makes of himself, it’s attention he wants.

But I can’t hold back any longer – not after the flamboyant former NBA star blew a kiss, appeared to bow and sang “Happy Birthday” Wednesday to Kim Jong Un, the leader of a regime that starves its own people, threatens its neighbors and spreads dangerous weapons around the world.

Rodman has become a well-paid PR tool for a brutal dictator he calls a “great leader” and his “best friend.” Rodman’s “basketball diplomacy” is no laughing matter.

It is definitely not, as he would have us believe, similar to ping-pong diplomacy, which helped thaw relations with China during the 1970s and pave the way for Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking visit.

While he’s the highest-profile American to have met Kim, Rodman is nothing like the politically savvy dignitaries, such as former United Nations ambassador Bill Richardson, who have gone to North Korea to help secure the release of Americans.

Rather, Rodman is a self-absorbed pseudo-celebrity who is promoting his bizarre relationship with a despot who just last month had his uncle executed. The White House and the NBA have distanced themselves, but Commissioner David Stern is being far too kind to say, “Dennis will be Dennis.”

Known as much for his hair colors as his hoops skills, Rodman seems to be going out of his way to be offensive. His visits are certainly not helping U.S. efforts to control North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. And they may be doing real harm to an American languishing in a North Korean labor camp.

Kenneth Bae, 44, of Lynnwood, Wash., was detained in November 2012 during a tour led by his China-based company. Bae, a Korean American and devout Christian, was sentenced last April to 15 years in a labor camp. North Korea says that Bae was convicted of “hostile acts” against the government and planning religious activities.

After Rodman suggested in a CNN interview Tuesday that Bae was somehow to blame for his captivity, Bae’s family was rightly outraged – and so was I.

I was born in South Korea and became a U.S. citizen during college. I still care about my homeland, just like millions of others in our nation of immigrants. While my family didn’t suffer as much as many during the Korean War, my father was imprisoned in a North Korean camp. He never really spoke of how horrific the conditions were for him. Before he passed away in 2001, my dad only told me how grateful he was to the American soldiers who liberated him.

If any good comes out of the Rodman spectacle, maybe it will bring more public attention to how truly horrible life is for the vast majority of North Koreans.

They are not the basketball players met by Rodman and the other former NBA stars, nor the handpicked officials who had the best seats for Wednesday’s game. Rodman isn’t seeing the millions of farmers and villagers who struggle to survive, or the estimated 200,000 slaving away in labor camps for some concocted transgression like political dissent.

Once he’s had his fun, Rodman will get on a plane and leave. Suffering North Koreans – and Kenneth Bae – don’t have that freedom.