(Left) North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with former NBA star Dennis Rodman at a basketball game in Pyongyang on February 28, 2013. (AFP)
Seoul, March 2: Landing an audience with Kim Jong-un, the leader of one of the world’s most reclusive countries, is not easy.
When President 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 a roller-coaster with Kim, who shocked the diplomatic corps with invitations to Rungna People’s Pleasure Ground. The British foreign office reportedly later explained 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 E. Schmidt, whose 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 English 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 North Korean leader is known to be a die-hard basketball fan.
Rodman and his travelling companions are now the only Americans known to have met Kim, who took power more than a year ago and 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 long-time 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 at Dongguk University in Seoul, who said Kim could present himself as open-minded to his own people while signalling to the West that he was “not a bad boy” and not as isolated as the US might wish.
And while the choice of Rodman might seem odd to some — he is known for cross-dressing and was visiting a conservative nation where long hair for men and short skirts for women are forbidden — Richardson said in an interview yesterday 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 them enough time to don formal wear.
Even though Rodman is no diplomat, Richardson said the visit could be valuable given the lack of good intelligence about Kim, 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 questions about the trip and whether the government would debrief Rodman on his return, a department spokesman, Patrick Ventrell, did not suggest a visit to Foggy Bottom was in the offing.
“We haven’t been in touch with this party at all,” he told reporters on Thursday, leaving out 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.”
The Kim dynasty — Kim Jong-un, his father and grandfather, the country’s founder — have used foreign visitors for specific goals. Kim Il-sung, the grandfather, entertained former President Jimmy Carter in 1994 when North Korea and the US appeared at the brink of war over the country’s nuclear programme; after a boat cruise, the two men struck a deal that averted conflict.
And in 2010, the North invited Dr Sigfried S. Hecker, the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, who was shown a secret uranium enrichment plant that American intelligence agencies had missed.