Dennis Rodman has finally left North Korea after his controversial "basketball diplomacy" trip to the repressive nation, and is now offering weak justifications for his plan and leaving us to wonder who is really responsible for the outrageous voyage.
The remaining members of his ex-NBA-guy team reached Beijing on Monday, where they continued to defend the mission the Hermit Kingdom. Team member and former New York Knick Charles Smith told CNN that North Korea did not bankroll the expedition, saying:
Absolutely not. I think I am astute enough to understand the dynamics, especially collecting monetary dollars from North Korea. No, we did not get paid from North Korea at all.
He added that Irish betting company Paddy Power and a film crew paid for the players to visit North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, though Paddy Power attempted to distance itself from the trip after Kim executed his uncle in an especially brutal power play last month. Still, the company told The Daily Beast that they would continue to honor their contractual obligations — including a significant contribution to the athletes that probably went a long way toward convincing them to join Rodman. According to Bleacher Report, NBA officials renounced any affiliation with the trip, adding that the players were "blinded by the payday."
Smith reiterated Rodman's official position, that the trip was simply an effort to connect with the members of a remote nation.
We went there to do what we normally do, and that's to be cross-cultural ambassadors and use the game of basketball as a bridge for exchange.
Rodman himself, however, appears to be having second thoughts on the trip overall. Rodman apologized last week for freaking out during an interview CNN, where he implied that U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae, currently sentenced to fifteen years in a North Korean prison camp for "hostile acts," deserved the punishment. Bae was leading a tour of the country at the time. Rodman said that he had been drinking before the CNN interview and that he was stressed out. He asked forgiveness from Bae's family:
I want to first apologize to Kenneth Bae's family... I want to apologize to my teammates and my management team. I also want to apologize to Chris Cuomo... I'm very sorry. At this point I should know better than to make political statements. I'm truly sorry.
On Monday, Rodman further apologized for not having been able to help Bae:
I'm sorry, I'm sorry I couldn't do anything... It's not my fault. I'm sorry. I just want to do some good stuff, that's all I want to do.
At best, Rodman is an eccentric dreamer, attempting to bridge the gap between the West and one of the world's most secretive nations. At worst, he is a troubled individual driven to seek compensation in the most unsavory ways. Whichever one you believe, accusing Rodman of pulling off the stunt on his own fails to recognize the circumstances that made such a trip possible.
According to The New York Times, while some spoke out against the trip, others believed that Rodman's basketball diplomacy could perhaps work where regular diplomacy had failed:
It is unclear whether Rodman will brief American officials about the trip, which the State Department said Rodman was making on his own. But [Korean Studies professor Charles] Armstrong... said he would not be surprised if United States officials sought a debriefing in view of Rodman’s unusual access to the North Korean leader. Beyond that, Armstrong said he saw diplomatic value in the trip. “It seems to me that these sorts of interactions are helpful for oppressive regimes who only see Americans in their own propaganda as evil warmongers and very threatening figures,” Armstrong said. “Here’s a chance for them to see Americans as human beings.”
Most North Koreans would not have access to the game, however. The Times reports that spectators were likely limited to elites and foreigners who paid $8,500 for a tour of the country that included tickets to the game. The fact that North Korea won the exhibition does little to make the event seem like anything other than a propaganda event for the nation. If this is the case, a number of high-profile American athletes accepted a paycheck from an Irish gambling company, under the guidance of a troubled man with the tacit approval of some diplomacy experts hoping to soften ties with the nation. Some of those experts had hoped that Rodman's friendship with Kim would help Bae, but that plan obviously backfired.
Rodman's trip can be seen as an example of our misplaced trust in the cult of celebrity. a national expectation that fame and money will succeed where negotiations have failed. It clearly didn't work.