Dennis Rodman may not come across as the most natural choice for a sports star turned American diplomat, but North Korea apparently begs to differ. Rodman has traveled to Pyongyang along with three Harlem Globetrotters and a documentary film crew for some basketball exhibitions and, the film company hopes, an audience with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who is said to be a devoted basketball fan. The group landed in Pyongyang on Tuesday, giving a round of interviews to journalists at the airport. “We got invited and we just came over to have some fun,” Rodman said. “Hopefully, everything will be O.K. and the kids will have a good time with the games.”
The visit to North Korea, a country with a brutal dictatorship, comes at a particularly tense time in U.S.-North Korean diplomacy, with North Korea’s recent announcement of a nuclear test aggravating an already strained relationship. But one warm spot between the countries is apparently basketball, something the Vice media founder Shane Smith realized while filming two documentaries in North Korea recently. He visited the country’s national museum, the Hall of Trophies, where a Michael Jordan-signed basketball given to the former leader Kim Jong-il in 2000 by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright is displayed prominently among national treasures. Kim Jong-il was obsessed with the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990s, a fascination he apparently passed along to his son, the current leader. “It’s weird because when you go there, it’s all very anti-American,” Smith said. “North Korean kids are fed anti-American propaganda from pretty much the day they are born. But it’s O.K. to like American basketball.”
So Smith hatched a plan to take some of those Bulls players to North Korea for one of the installments of a series Smith will host on HBO, called “Vice,” featuring news and footage from around the world, which will make its debut April 5. Smith did not go through the State Department but received permission through his previous contacts and the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations. Smith said he was sure that Kim Jong-un’s love of basketball was why the trip was approved.
He quickly found that Jordan was not likely to be a willing ambassador. “But Dennis is up for anything and everything, ” Smith said. He then recruited the Globetrotters to round out a team, and they offered up Anthony Blakes, known as Buckets; Alex Weekes, known as Moose; and Will Bullard, known as Bull. Ryan Duffy, a Vice correspondent who is on the trip, will also join in on the games to fill out the team. “The Harlem Globetrotters are known worldwide as the Ambassadors of Goodwill, and we are proud to continue our storied heritage of entertaining families and breaking down social barriers worldwide,” the Globetrotters’ chief executive, Kurt Schneider, said in a statement. “Our aim is to entertain and inspire children everywhere. Every child deserves that opportunity.”
According to the Globetrotters, team members have traveled to 122 countries in the team’s 87-year history. This one might be the oddest trip of all, given North Korea’s isolation. “It is a bizarre place,” Smith said. “And this is a bizarre idea.” It certainly qualified as a spectacle when the group arrived, even though Rodman was dressed rather conservatively — for him — in a sweat jacket and pants and an array of facial piercings. In North Korea, after all, men are not allowed to have so much as facial hair. The Globetrotters were more colorful in their bright red gear, with Weekes’s trademark Afro in its full expanse.
The group plans to spend four to five days, visit a children’s sports camp and play some games with North Korean players. They tried to make a good first impression with the North Korean news media upon their arrival. “I’ve always loved Korea — North, South, doesn’t matter,” Bullard told reporters. “I’ve always loved Korea personally. We all do. We love every place that we go. They all accept us for who we are. We’re role models. We have great characteristics. It’s all family fun.” In a bit of unintentional hilarity, one of the reporters asked Rodman whether this was his first visit to North Korea. “It is my first time,” he said. “I think it’s most of these guys’ first time here.”
Rodman quickly took to his Twitter account to talk about the trip, writing: “I’m not a politician. Kim Jung Un & North Korean people are basketball fans. I love everyone. Period. End of story.” On a less diplomatic note, he also wrote, “Maybe I’ll run into the Gangnam Style dude while I’m here,” apparently unaware the pop star Psy is South Korean.
Smith said the group hoped for a meeting with Kim Jon-un but was not sure it would happen. Even without that, Smith said he could not wait to see the footage. He said that the opportunity to mix with North Koreans was rare, that his previous trips were supervised tours with only government-approved interview subjects. “I look at this as basketball diplomacy, the same way we had Ping-Pong diplomacy with China,” Smith said. “Once you get the Globetrotters involved, I mean, how can you not smile when you see the Harlem Globetrotters?”