Basketball diplomacy in North Korea

Following perhaps one of the tensest periods on the KoreanPeninsula in recent times since North Korea’s third undergroundnuclear test that was openly aimed at sending a warning to theUnited States, Rodman’s visit, along with three other HarlemGlobetrotters, comes at a unique time.Rodman’s crew travelled to Pyongyang with approval from NorthKorean authorities to conduct a series of basketball exhibitionsfor a documentary produced by hipster-media outlet VICE, and therewere no plans for the group to meet Kim Jong-un. Reports claim thatKim enjoyed Rodman’s company so much, that the Harlem Globetrottersand Rodman’s film crew were invited to Kim’s palace for a party,where they were likely induced to imbibe several bottles of NorthKorea’s famously potent soju.Kim allegedly expressed to Rodman his desire to improve NorthKorean-American relations, and Rodman later addressed Kim before acrowd of thousands, telling him, “You have a friend forlife.” Kim, like his father, Kim Jong-il, is a devotedbasketball fan. During her visit to Pyongyang in 2000, former USSecretary of State Madeleine Albright brought Kim Jong-il an NBAbasketball signed by Michael Jordan as a goodwill gift. As if theNorth Korean regime couldn’t be any more bizarre following Kim’sendorsement of a performance featuring characters dressed as MickeyMouse and Winnie the Pooh in 2012, Kim’s mingling with famouslyflamboyant Dennis Rodman reinforces the overwhelming peculiaritythat is the North Korean regime.While these two may be strange bedfellows, Rodman’s visitrepresents a very tangible attempt of offering goodwill on behalfof the United States, the sworn and mortal enemy of SocialistKorea.Kim Jong-il was known to be a huge movie-buff, boasting a hugecollection of DVDs, among them many American titles that he wassaid to be fond of. South Korean media often depicts North Koreansas having a secret affinity for all things American, and ifRodman’s stopover in Pyongyang tells us anything, it is thatgoodwill goes a long way, and maybe the DPRK would be willing toplay from different sheet music if the US changed its approach.It’ll take more than basketball to get Beijing on boardFollowing North Korea’s third nuclear test, many Chinesecitizens took part in a historically unprecedented outbreak ofanti-North Korea protests, and both China’s state-run media andvarious policy experts are becoming more vocal in their criticismof Beijing’s North Korean policy.Xi Jinping has indicated that his incoming administration willsoon enter discussions about new policies for the Korean peninsula,including North Korean policy, and reports claim that Chineseresearchers have been given orders to prepare reports re-evaluatingChina’s policies toward the North. Many prominent Chinese analystsare beginning to voice their concerns that North Korea’s value as ageopolitical ally is outdated. Recent material published by DengYuwen, assistant editor of China’s Study Times, an educationalinstitute for high-ranking officials in the Communist Party ofChina that Xi Jinping headed until 2012, stated, “Once NorthKorea has nuclear weapons, it cannot be ruled out that thecapricious Kim regime will engage in nuclear blackmail againstChina,” Deng said, claiming that, when Bill Clinton visitedPyongyang in 2009, Kim Jong-il “suggested that if Washingtonheld out a helping hand, North Korea could become its strongestfortress against China.”Deng argues that China should begin to shift its focus towardfacilitating North Korea’s unification with South Korea, thushelping to “undermine the strategic alliance between Washington,Tokyo and Seoul [and] ease the geopolitical pressure on China.”The so-called “US-North Korea deal theory” whereby NorthKorea would participate in US efforts to counter China, if it evercame to fruition, would be the one policy direction that nobodycould have ever imagined. As Washington pivots its military muscletoward the Asia-Pacific with over 60% of US naval forces nowlocated there, Washington would likely find more comfort insolidifying North Korea’s role as northeast Asia’s “madman inthe attic,” so as to justify the highly unpopular Americanpresence in South Korea and Japan.Concerns over North Korea dumping China in favor of an alliancewith the US have appeared in the Study Times, it is unlikely thatthe piece is merely the personal opinion of the writer, but rathera reflection of the Chinese political establishment, who feelfrustrated with their increasingly noticeable lack of leverage withPyongyang. Zhang Liangui, a professor at the Central Party School,in an interview with the ultra-nationalist Global Times paper,stated that “North Korea has never cared about China’s attitude,when North Korea makes big decisions, it would rather informWashington than Beijing… the North has never viewed China as anally.” Zhang is referring to the North’s April 2012 satellitelaunch, where US officials were given early notification, while theChinese foreign ministry was among the last to know.Even as Beijing becomes more upfront with its discontent, Chinahas a valuable economic stake in North Korea’s development; itcontinually invests in joint ventures with Pyongyang and has ledinitiatives to develop the nation’s vast untapped mineral resources(which include deposits of coal, iron ore, gold ore, zinc ore,copper ore, and others) valued at a staggering $6.1 trillion, Chinais not looking for any additional agitation as it prepares for itsonce-in-a-decade leadership transition. Two members of China’sincoming Politburo Standing Committee, Zhang Dejiang and SunZhengcai, have spent years in close proximity to North Korea,engaging in cross-border interactions with North Koreancounterparts aiming to promote economic reform in Pyongyang.Immediately following the North’s third nuclear test, Chinasignaled its frustration with the North in an opinion piece withthe Global Times, which stated “If North Korea engages infurther nuclear tests, China will not hesitate to reduce itsassistance to North Korea.” The editorial went on to say thatif the US, Japan and South Korea “promote extreme U.N. sanctionson North Korea, China will resolutely stop them and force them toamend these draft resolutions.” One would hope that thecenterpiece of Beijing’s foreign policy strategy towards the Northunder Xi Jingping will be encouraging the regime to behave moresensibly and focus on meeting the needs of its people.Perhaps policymakers in Beijing will have an easier timeconvincing Pyongyang to behave if it offered a meaningful securitypact in which Pyongyang is guaranteed military support from Chinaif things ever get ugly – given the increasing frustration of theChinese side of things, this doesn’t look so likely. One couldsurmise that Xi’s administration may also voice its discontent withthe frequently occurring ROK-US joint military exercises held nearthe North Korean border and in disputed maritime areas, which havehistorically irked Pyongyang and have arguably provoked it intobehaving in an equally provocative way. One thing is for sure –after three nuclear tests and continuing rhetoric from Pyongyangthreatening the South with destruction – all sides are reassessingtheir positions. Washington’s DPRK policy is one of “strategicpatience,” and after a history of failed deals between the USand North Korea (primarily because both sides are guilty of notsticking to their end of the agreement) Obama would be best advisedto take some cues from ‘the Worm’ and serve up some goodwill and meaningful engagement on the court.

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Basketball diplomacy in North Korea

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