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December 21, 2014

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Basketball diplomacy, Pyongyang style

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It is really not so odd that we would find Dennis Rodman partying heartily with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. After all, they have so much in common. Think of Kim as Rodman with less height, fewer piercings, more nuclear menace — and more blood on his hands.

They also both love basketball, self-promotion and keeping the world guessing about their sanity.

At least Rodman’s motives for this match-up are easier to guess. What else is a former NBA star, long past his glory years, to do after having played out all of the more conventional avenues for washed-up celebrities to feed their heavy attention addictions?

The retired Hall of Fame rebound artist with the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls in their 1990s glory years has startled the world with such antics as wearing a wedding dress and blushing-bridal makeup to promote his memoir in 1996, claiming appropriately to “marry” himself.

He’s also dyed his hair in a multitude of day-glo colors and married “Baywatch” beauty Carmen Electra for all of nine days before their annulment. He even served time as a contestant on Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice,” the world Olympics of celebrities who have exceeded their sell-by dates.

Yet, at a time when he was becoming so-o-o-o last century, the Dennis formerly known as a menace found a new way to make jaws drop again: pal around with a nuclear terrorist.

That’s Kim, North Korea’s cherubic third-generation despot who resembles the Pillsbury Doughboy with a high-top fade haircut and a Mao suit.

Their bizarre basketball diplomacy occurred during a trip to Pyongyang sponsored by Vice Media for an HBO newsmagazine show to debut in April.

In a country that is infamous for mass starvation and enormous prison camps, Rodman dined, watched a basketball game that mixed members of the Harlem Globetrotters with some North Korean players, and hung out for two days with the famine-ridden country’s supreme leader.

After his return, Rodman sounded like a grateful stooge for Kim’s propaganda efforts. He called Kim “my friend” and “a great guy” and urged President Barack Obama to respond to Kim’s requests for a phone call.

When ABC’s George Stephanopoulos pointed out the great suffering brought by the regime’s deplorable human rights record, Rodman bizarrely compared it to President Bill Clinton’s sex scandal and pleaded for Kim to be given another chance. After news of his views hit the fan that day, Rodman later scheduled interviews were abruptly canceled without explanation.

Yet, as the White House responded with denunciations of Rodman’s freelance diplomacy, noting that the U.S. has its own “direct channels of communications” with Pyongyang, the trip makes one wonder, could this be the start of something diplomatically bigger?

Remember the historic 1971 U.S. ping pong team’s visit to China that led to President Richard Nixon’s opening of diplomatic relations. Rodman eagerly offered a similar bridge-builder. President Obama loves basketball and so does Kim, said Rodman: “Let’s start there.”

Fat chance. The North Korean regime has been so uncooperative and irrationally belligerent with the rest of the world that even their biggest ally, China, seems barely able to tolerate them. President Obama, like his predecessors, prefers to deal with North Korea in partnership with China, South Korea and other regional powers.

Even so, the regime has cut itself off so much from the rest of the world that, as Col. Steve Ganyard, a former deputy assistant secretary of state, told ABC, Rodman might know more personally about Kim than anybody at the CIA — “and that in itself is scary.”

A 2009 Washington Post profile found evidence that Kim was a major Bulls fan while secretly enrolled under the alias Pak Un in a Swiss boarding school between 1998 and 2000. The story describes him as a big basketball fan at that time who “proudly showed off photographs of himself standing with Toni Kukoc of the Chicago Bulls and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers.” Spokespeople for Kukoc and Bryant said the stars could not recall the picture-taking episode.

If true, basketball opens another window into the strange mindset of a leader who may not be in complete control of his own restless military establishment. Like Rodman, he wants attention and deserves to have it, although not necessarily in the way that either of them wants it.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He writes from Washington.

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  1. Mr. Page please allow me a quote that my dear mother told me as a youngster that summarizes your article about the new found love between Dennis Rodman and North Korea's Kim Jong Un. "Birds of the same feathers flock together."

    CarmineD