Dennis Rodman and Civil Society Engagement with Sŏn’gun Korea

Daniel Pinkston

By Daniel A. Pinkston, Ph.D., Troy University

June 15, 2017 - Policymakers, journalists, and pundits often describe North Korea and its leadership as “unpredictable” or “irrational.” However, North Korea is neither irrational nor more unpredictable than any other country. Pyongyang’s intermittent belligerence, human rights abuses, and its long-term commitment to developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles are all unacceptable to the international community. While North Korean behavior is horrendous, this does not mean its leadership is crazy or irrational. On the contrary, North Korean actions are consistent with the leadership’s world view that is grounded in extreme nationalism, realist thought, militarism, and Lenin’s theory of capitalist imperialism.

In North Korea, domestic political issues are resolved through force or the threat of force. The Kim family dynasty repeatedly has demonstrated the will to use organized violence in pursuit of its political objectives, including two dynastic power transitions. The Kims have remained in power by eliminating their political opponents—not through democratic elections and coalition building. In this Machiavellian nightmare, no one can make credible commitments, even the dictator. Trust is in short supply because power asymmetry is the arbiter of political disputes.      

Pyongyang’s realist interpretation of political order extends to international politics as well. North Korean ideology rejects the concept of collective security cooperation. Self-help and nuclear weapons are considered the only ways to ensure survival. This orientation is self-fulfilling and reinforcing at both the domestic and international levels. Suspicions and fears are continuously reaffirmed through cycles of actions and reactions in the forms of military exercises, nuclear and missile tests, diplomatic demarches, sanctions, threats, and declaratory policies. This never-ending process is tailor-made for an autocratic regime that controls the information space within its territory.        

Despite North Korea’s isolation, the country’s identity and foreign policy can only exist in the context of its relations with other countries and its place in the international system. For the North Korean regime to continue in its current form, Pyongyang must maintain the basic tenets of a propaganda narrative it has constructed over nearly seven decades. North Koreans are subjected to relentless propaganda depicting Koreans as pure and innocent victims struggling to survive in a menacing world featuring blood-thirsty American imperialists who have been trying to enslave the Korean people since the 1830s. Yes, the 1830s.   

The world according to Pyongyang is a Hobbesian hell where evil imperialists are determined to exploit innocent Koreans at every opportunity. This narrative has been reinforced for years; most North Koreans have no reason to disbelieve it. Few North Koreans have seen the outside world, and fewer still have had the opportunity to interact with foreigners while inside North Korea. Paradoxically, North Korea’s isolation and autarchy are completely dependent upon an internal social understanding that the outside world and foreigners are hostile and aggressive toward Koreans.

When a state is locked into this mindset, the international community has little choice but to respond with a deterrence posture to avoid exploitation and conflict. However, this deadlock can be sustained indefinitely with occasional risks of violent conflict. There are two ways to escape this suboptimal equilibrium: one side can eliminate the other through force or people’s thinking can change to accept peaceful coexistence and cooperative security arrangements. Realist power balancing is not the only pathway to survival and security, but cooperative alternatives will only become possible when the North Korean people begin to view others as “friends and partners” rather than “intractable enemies of the Korean people, generation after generation.”     

The North Korean regime has many advantages in constructing and maintaining its propaganda narrative. North Korean thinking and attitudes are less likely to change in a positive way unless positive messages penetrate the country’s information space. Non-governmental organizations are working to provide more information about the outside world through a variety of means, and this work should be commended. However, the international community must play the long-game and use multiple methods to reach the North Korean people.

Non-governmental and non-market-based people-to-people exchanges are one mechanism that serves as a conduit of information. Of course, we must have realistic expectations about the role of civil society and its role in transforming the North Korean mindset. We should not expect people-to-people exchanges to bring immediate results. Private citizens can neither negotiate for governments nor commit to binding agreements on behalf of governments. However, civil society exchanges are less risky than economic exchanges because trade and investment give the Kim family regime opportunities to skim off hard currency that is critical to the regime’s survival.    

After almost  two and a half years, former professional basketball star Dennis Rodman has returned to North Korea. During his last visit in January 2014, Rodman led a group of American former NBA players to play an exhibition game with North Korean players. Rodman and the other players faced extreme criticism for playing the game on Kim Jong-un’s birthday only a few weeks after Kim purged and executed his uncle, Chang Sŏng-t’aek. Critics viewed the game as a propaganda coup for the regime, which is not incorrect. However, the party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department has no shortage of propaganda themes; the North Korean people would still get the same propaganda message but with a slight variation in details. If Rodman and the other players had not visited Pyongyang, the North Korean people would not have been spared from the propaganda narrative.

Critics failed to realize that Rodman’s visit served other purposes. In 2013, Rodman signed an agreement with the North Korean sports minister that provided for basketball exchanges twice a year, alternating between Pyongyang and locations abroad. The first game was held on January 8, 2014, Kim Jong-un’s birthday, but the next game was to be held in Europe in mid-2014. The two sides also agreed to hold discussions on expanding the exchanges into music and other cultural activities. However, the project collapsed after sponsors pulled funding in the aftermath of intense public condemnation. If the project had gone forward, so many young North Korean athletes, musicians, and artists could have traveled abroad to interact with foreigners, and subsequently learn that North Korean propaganda about “blood-thirsty imperialists seeking to kill and enslave Koreans” is not true.

Rodman’s current visit can’t work miracles. Otto Warmbier, an American student who had been detained in North Korea since January 2016, was released the same day that Rodman arrived for his visit. Warmbier’s release was obtained through the efforts of the U.S. State Department, but we don’t know if Pyongyang deliberately timed Warmbier’s release to coincide with the Rodman visit. Unfortunately, Rodman’s visit can serve as a distraction to the tragedy of Otto Warmbier’s long detention. Hopefully, Warmbier’s case will not become a distraction that derails Rodman’s efforts to increase people-to-people contacts, reduce the dehumanization of all parties in the Korean conflict, change the mindset of the North Korean people, and eventually effect policy change and a transformation of the Korean peninsula.