The Sad Backstory of North Korea’s First Basketball Diplomat

The Sad Backstory of North Korea’s First Basketball Diplomat

Dennis Rodman’s epic CNN meltdown on Jan. 7 — in which he implicitly defended North Korea’s continued imprisonment of American citizen Kenneth Bae — may be the lowest point in his confused "basketball diplomacy" crusade.

The former basketball star is currently in North Korea with six other NBA veterans to play in a charity ball game that doubles as a birthday present for Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. Though Rodman has vacillated on whether this trip has diplomatic undertones, it’s fair to say that his efforts at fostering goodwill have accomplished little more than stir controversy. Since his first visit to the pariah state last February, Rodman has taken a lot of heat for his friendship with the North Korean dictator. His December visit, a scouting mission just days after Kim executed his uncle, similarly raised eyebrows.

Of course, Rodman isn’t the first to attempt basketball diplomacy between North Korea and the United States — and he won’t be the first to fail. That dubious honor belongs to Ri Myung Hun, a 7-ft., 8-in. tall North Korean who, in 1998, nearly became the first Asian in the NBA.

According to Twitter, the two would-be ambassadors have been been hanging together in Pyongyang — exchanging stories, one hopes, about the difficulties of mixing sports and politics. Ri’s is certainly a sad one.

In 1998, the center was recruited by an American scout. He flew to Canada, changed his name to Michael Ri, after his favorite player, Michael Jordan, and was soon being courted by teams all over the country. But his dream of joining the NBA was foiled by the State Department, which decided that signing Ri would violate the Trading with the Enemy Act, which bars U.S. companies from doing business with North Korea.

Soon after, Ri told CNN: "The NBA agreed for me to play, so did the U.S. Commerce Department…. But the State Department waited for six months, and then said no. They wanted to use me for political purposes. So I just gave up."

Two years later, the State Department reversed its decision, allowing Ri to play in America. But, evidently, that didn’t go over so well with former dictator Kim Jong Il, who "was insulted by the previous rebuff and retracted his 7-foot-8½-inch olive branch."

In North Korea, Ri was honored with a position in the military (he is popularly known as the super tall soldier at Kim Jong Il’s funeral) and a place on the DPRK national team. He’s now retired which means, among other things, that he doesn’t have to deal with Kim Jong Un’s weird, made-up basketball rules.

Incidentally, in 2001, Michael Jordan was tapped to make a goodwill trip to Pyongyang but his management team — perhaps wisely — declined.