Dennis Rodman North Korea Visit: Is He White-Washing Atrocities?


If you want proof of the end times, here's one indication: the first American to meet with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un was not a high-level diplomat, U.S. official, or even a hapless defector. It was former NBA star and body modification aficionado Dennis Rodman.

Rodman, who visited North Korea on a two-day trip alongside VICE Magazine staffers, recounted his experiences in an interview with ABC's This Week With George Stephanopolous, in which he gave a rambling and deferential account of his pleasant experiences meeting the leader.

"I hate the fact that he's doing it but the fact is, you know what, as a human being, though, he let his guard down. He did it one day to me. I didn't talk about that. I understand that," Rodman said when asked whether he was aware Jong-Un had threatened to nuke the United States or that millions of people had been killed by the repressive regime.

"What I saw in that country ... I saw that people respect him and his family," Rodman said.

He further suggested that Jong-Un wanted one thing: a direct phone call with President Obama.

"I sat with him for two days and ... he wanted Obama to do one thing  [to] call him... He said, 'if you can, Dennis, I don't want to do war. I don't want to do war.' He said that to me."

"He's a good guy to me. As a person to person, he's my friend. I don't condone what he does," Rodman continued.

"I think that Kim Jong-Un calculated correctly that if he brought in a basketball star, he not only would have a moment to go share his interest and hobby, but that he would get somebody who wouldn't lecture him on human rights, on setting off missile tests and underground nuclear tests, and he was right!" said a CBS commentator.

"Instead of spending money on staging sporting events, the North Korean regime should focus on the well-being of its own people who have been starved, imprisoned, and denied their human rights," a State Department statement retorted.

While the sheer ridiculousness of the North Korean regime is often played for laughs in the media  ranging from Kim Jong-il's infamous fondnesses for Hennessy, pornography, and looking at things to their admittedly hilarious attempts at making video games  the truth of what is happening inside North Korea is far from funny. Inside the world's most-closed-off country, human rights abuses are so rampant and common that they are internalized. North Korea runs what might be the world's only concentration camps, where conditions are so brutal and foul that prisoners eat anything that "flew, crawled, or grew in the field."

Kim Young Soon, a North Korean prison camp survivor, shared some other illuminating stories, including top leadership's efforts to deliberately suppress the economy and totalitarian control so harsh that if the daily Pyongyang seafood shipments were ever late, the train supervisor would be executed on the spot.

Do international visits like these increase the regime's legitimacy? Doubtful, seeing as Rodman and Vice's visit are notable specifically because the rest of the world understands it's seeing past one of the last vestiges of the iron curtain into a bizarre world of authoritarian idolatry and oppression. It might, however, contribute to a general sense of apathy about North Korean human rights abuses by leading us to take the threat the nation poses (particularly to its own people) less seriously.

And don't think that Rodman is too stupid to know exactly what he's doing. Sure, maybe the full scope of what is happening in North Korea is beyond his conception, and maybe he's a bit naive about authoritarian showmanship, but similar mistakes have been made by people whose noses should have caught the scent of rot far quicker. Take, for example, Vogue's humiliating white-washing of the al-Assad regime in Syria published in February 2011, just months before the Arab Spring. In the ensuing months, pro-regime forces unleashed everything from tear gas to helicopter-fired missiles against civilians and rebels like (and possibly chemical weapons).

Instead, Rodman is using this as a chance to put the focus on his largely outdated and forgotten personage, and screw the people of North Korea.

Rodman's antics are amusing, but we shouldn't let them distract us from the horrifically awful things happening daily under Kim's watch  regardless of how he feels about Jong-un "person to person." After all, as people are fond of saying, Hitler was a nice guy.