- By Victor ChaVictor D. Cha is a professor at Georgetown University and senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His latest book is “Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia” (Princeton, 2016).
"Call me, Mr. Obama." That was North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s message to the White House, according to the most unlikely diplomatic emissary, former NBA star Dennis Rodman.
Could you imagine an odder couple? The cross-dressing, body-piercing "bad boy" of basketball sitting with a boy dictator who rides astride a renegade nuclear weapons state. Indeed, just weeks before the bizarre piece of basketball diplomacy, which saw Rodman watch an exhibition game featuring a few Harlem Globetrotters players and spend two days palling around with Kim in Pyongyang, North Korean state propaganda broadcast threatening video images of U.S. President Barack Obama in flames and an American city under attack.
Even more disturbing is the spectacle that the North Korea story has become. Watching George Stephanopoulos’s efforts to lambast Rodman for his declarations of friendship with Kim during a nationally televised interview on Sunday, I could not tell whether this was real news or a Saturday Night Live routine — the North Korea story has become a caricature of itself. Before Rodman, it was Google chairman Eric Schmidt; then it was the New York Philharmonic; before that, in 1995, it was professional wrestler Ric Flair, with a guest appearance by boxer Muhammad Ali. North Korea has become the ultimate 24/7 cable international news story meets reality TV — hard news mixed with the odd, the outrageous, and the amusing.
Yet the weapons are real, and the North Korean regime’s rhetoric has become increasingly belligerent since Kim Jong Un took the reins after his father’s death in December 2011. My research shows that more provocations are coming: South Korea inaugurated a new president on Feb. 25, and North Korea has carried out a belligerent act within 12 weeks of every South Korean presidential inauguration since 1992. It has sold nuclear wares to Syria, and missiles to Pakistan and Iran. It is entirely plausible that North Korea’s latest nuclear test on Feb. 12 was helpful not just to Kim, but also to Tehran. This threat is very real and should be taken seriously despite the endless amount of comedic material that the Rodman-Kim images provide for late-night comedians.
The U.S. government should bite its tongue and quietly debrief Rodman. As far as we know, no other American has gotten closer to the mysterious leader. Whatever we can learn, even through the Worm’s rose-colored shades, could be useful. Every venue where the North Korean leader has been seen in public with non-North Koreans — amusement parks, basketball games — suggests a penchant for Western leisure. Is this a sign of an enlightened young leader willing to break out of decades of broken ideology and reform? Or a sign of an isolated boy-leader who thinks nuclear weapons are toys, just like basketballs and video games? It is a scary thought that the only American "expert" on this is Dennis Rodman.
Victor Cha is senior advisor for Asia and Korea chair at CSIS and professor at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future.