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How NBA star Dennis Rodman came to stand between the world and nuclear war

The Guardian logo The Guardian 2017-09-14 Hunter Felt

Dennis Rodman chatting with his good friend, Kim Jong Un: Dennis Rodman chatting with his good friend, Kim Jong-un © AFP/Getty Images Dennis Rodman chatting with his good friend, Kim Jong-un 2017 has become the year when absurd jokes appear to be coming true. When Dennis Rodman made his first trip to North Korea back in 2013, it was amusing to imagine the eccentric NBA legend acting as the United States’ de facto ambassador to the country. The idea was as preposterous as Donald Trump somehow being elected president.

It sounds surreal, but with tensions rising between the two countries thanks to North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons program, there’s a very real possibility that Rodman, a man who once married himself, ends up playing a key role in preventing Armageddon. Rodman himself certainly believes he will. In an interview with Good Morning Britain, the five-time NBA champion offered to “straighten things out” between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, emphasizing that he considers both men friends. 

Related: In the court of Kim Jong-un: a ruthless, bellicose despot, but not mad

In this Jan. 8, 2014, file photo, Dennis Rodman sings Happy Birthday to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, seated above in the stands, before an exhibition basketball game at an indoor stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea. © AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon, File In this Jan. 8, 2014, file photo, Dennis Rodman sings Happy Birthday to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, seated above in the stands, before an exhibition basketball game at an indoor stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea. Rodman, along with a group of journalists from Vice, first visited North Korea in 2013 after an invitation from Kim. It turns out that the North Korean leader grew up a fan of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls teams from the 1990s. Rodman, one of the best defensive players of the era, was a key figure on those teams, although ultimately he received far more attention for his (literally) colourful antics than his formidable basketball skills.

Rodman stood out on the court with his dyed hair and numerous piercings. Off the court, he moved from controversy to controversy, fueled by a near-limitless need for attention. Rodman dated several celebrities, most famously Madonna and Carmen Electra appeared in terrible action movies, posed in wedding dresses and coffins to promote his tell-all books and became a tabloid fixture thanks to his self-destructive behaviour. He was once even a candidate on Celebrity Apprentice, where Trump fired him for misspelling the name of the future first lady.

Former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman leaves the Koryo hotel for Sunan International Airport on Saturday, June 17, 2017, in Pyongyang, North Korea. © AP Photo/Wong Maye-E Former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman leaves the Koryo hotel for Sunan International Airport on Saturday, June 17, 2017, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Because of his history, few took his “basketball diplomacy” trip to North Korea very seriously. If they did, it was to criticize Rodman for participating in what was, at least partially, propaganda meant to humanize one of the world’s most notorious dictators. When Rodman proclaimed that he and Kim were “friends for life,” one wondered whether he had put any thought of the people his new best friend had imprisoned or executed.

To Rodman’s credit, it turned out to be something more than a one-time publicity stunt. He made additional trips to North Korea and inevitably found himself in the middle of international incidents. In 2014, Rodman drew harsh criticism by suggesting that North Korea had a valid reason to keep American missionary Kenneth Bae locked up. Bae would later claim that Rodman’s comments indirectly lead to his release: “Because of his rant, the media attention to my plight was increased.” (Rodman, who would later apologize, entered rehab in the aftermath of the controversy.)

In this Feb. 29, 2016 file photo, American student Otto Warmbier speaks as Warmbier is presented to reporters in Pyongyang, North Korea. U.S. officials say the Trump administration will ban American citizens from travelling to North Korea following the death of university student Otto Warmbier, who passed away after falling into a coma into a North Korean prison. © AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon In this Feb. 29, 2016 file photo, American student Otto Warmbier speaks as Warmbier is presented to reporters in Pyongyang, North Korea. U.S. officials say the Trump administration will ban American citizens from travelling to North Korea following the death of university student Otto Warmbier, who passed away after falling into a coma into a North Korean prison. Earlier this year Rodman’s agent said that his client helped convince North Korea to release American college student Otto Warmbier before his death. Now, nearly everyone else involved with Warmbier’s release has denied that Rodman had much to do with it, but the mere fact that he was in a position to take credit is proof enough that he has become the unlikely face of US-North Korean relations. As North Korea expert Ken Gause said to Time that “he’s not the best ambassador we could have but it’s who we have.”

In just about any other situation, Gause would be correct in describing Rodman as an utterly inappropriate ambassador – as the man himself admits “[Kim and I] ride horses, we hang out, we go skiing, we hardly ever talk politics and that’s the good thing.” Rodman also fundamentally lacks the tact and restraint required in most diplomatic situations and has a tendency to make events all about himself.

Former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman, centre right, talks to North Korea's Pothonggang women's basketball team during his visit to Chongjong Street basketball gymnasium on Wednesday, June 14, 2017, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Rodman began sightseeing in Pyongyang on Wednesday during a trip he said he hoped would "open a door" for his former "Celebrity Apprentice" boss, President Donald Trump. © AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon Former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman, centre right, talks to North Korea's Pothonggang women's basketball team during his visit to Chongjong Street basketball gymnasium on Wednesday, June 14, 2017, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Rodman began sightseeing in Pyongyang on Wednesday during a trip he said he hoped would "open a door" for his former "Celebrity Apprentice" boss, President Donald Trump. Oddly enough, all of these traits might make Rodman the perfect ambassador to North Korea. These are characteristics he shares with both Trump and Kim, which could go a long way to explaining how he became the only high profile individual with a direct line to both leaders.

What makes the current situation between the United States and North Korea so unpredictable is that it’s a nuclear standoff without a rational actor on either side. No one has a realistic idea of how to deal with North Korea’s growing nuclear program, every option seems to either be ineffectual or potentially catastrophic. It’s also obvious that the Trump administration seems far more open to using nuclear weapons than any of the previous ones. There’s no obvious solution.

Former NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman arrives at Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing, Saturday, June 17, 2017, after a flight from Pyongyang. Former NBA star Rodman, vowing to come back again soon, on Saturday wrapped up a low-key and incident-free visit to the North Korean capital. © AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein Former NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman arrives at Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing, Saturday, June 17, 2017, after a flight from Pyongyang. Former NBA star Rodman, vowing to come back again soon, on Saturday wrapped up a low-key and incident-free visit to the North Korean capital. Is it likely that a troubled basketball legend/terrible actor/reality show star could actually end up helping to avert a nuclear war? Probably not. Is it worth giving him a shot? Well, why not? Could it just be magical thinking? Well yes, but considering everything that has happened in the last year, it’s foolish to rule out any event, no matter how preposterous.

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