Terry K. Park* | August 13, 2013
At a discussion organized by Asia Society New York in July entitled “‘Avoiding Apocalypse’: Searching for Peace with North Korea,” former ambassador to the Republic of Korea Donald Gregg and former Governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson suggested that the Obama administration actively engage the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea. “Isolation is not working,” said Richardson, who visited the DPRK in January with former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. “What we need is out-of-the-box diplomacy.” Amid current diplomatic tensions between North Korea and the United States is Kenneth Bae, a U.S. citizen and evangelical Christian currently serving a fifteen year sentence in a labor camp on charges of trying to overthrow the North Korean government. On how best to secure Bae’s release, Richardson commented, “I think it’s going to be something unorthodox, but hopefully it will be resolved, because this man deserves to come home.”
Out of the box? Unorthodox?
Cue Dennis Rodman.
The sequined celebrity announced last Saturday at the Wizard World Comic Con near Chicago, where he promoted his new children’s book Dennis the Wild Bull, that he intends to return to Pyongyang “soon” to seek Bae’s release and reunite with his new friend, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “I love him,” declared Rodman after his first trip six months ago. “That guy’s awesome.” Those words of affection flabbergasted a home audience shocked by images of Rodman cozying up with Kim at a basketball game featuring members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. Politicians, pundits, and bloggers ripped Rodman apart; on an ABC interview, George Stephanopoulos accused him of propping up a government that has threatened to destroy the United States and imprisons much of its own population. Rodman defended his actions, bringing a message of peace—not war—from Kim himself. It didn’t matter, though. Head-butting an NBA referee is one thing, but when he befriended the hated leader of a hated country, Americans felt like Rodman had head-butted their national pride. “Stay in North Korea,” screamed bulletin-board comments. “Traitor” shouted others. America’s “Bad Boy” just got badder.
Rodman, however, had flouted convention long before he stepped off the Air Koryo plane in Pyongyang. The cross-dressing, multi-colored hair-dyeing, pink boa-wearing, Pearl Jam-listening, pierced-and-tattooed black male athlete gained notoriety during and after his colorful basketball career for rebelling against prescribed racial, gender, and sexual norms. Even the way he entered the Basketball Hall of Fame went against convention. Instead of scoring, “The Worm” rebounded and defended his way into the hallowed halls of Springfield. In short, Rodman is an enigma, a mystery, a blank space on the map of legibility, taking pride in his Mad Hatter-ability to befuddle and frustrate.
North Korea is in many ways the Dennis Rodman of the international community. Its hyperbolic statements are routinely and ahistorically interpreted as the mutterings of a mad man rather than a rational actor with limited resources, few allies, and a historical memory that stretches as long as the 150-mile long demilitarized zone.
But there is another, less-perceptible, yet nonetheless resonant dimension to the discomfort caused by the Rodman-DPRK pairing—the relatively-unknown legacy of Black American radicals aligning with North Korea. It started in the immediate aftermath of the Korean War, when Clarence Adams, William C. White, and LaRance Sullivan, three Black American prisoners of war during the Korean War, refused repatriation to the United States. Instead, they defected with nineteen other American soldiers to China. In his memoir, Adams recounts his politicization by his Chinese captors in a North Korean POW camp and his eventual decision to live in China, which, at the time, was the only place where he thought he could be “treated as a human being.”
This legacy continued with the Black Panther Party’s (BPP) open admiration of Juche, the North Korean ideology embracing sovereignty and independence. Benjamin R. Young wrote an article for NKNews.org in December 2012 based on his master’s thesis research on the BPP’s “secret North Korean fetish.” In the article, Young describes a visit to North Korea in 1969 by Eldridge Cleaver, a former leader and co-founder of the BPP and BPP deputy minister of defense Byron Booth, both of whom served as delegates to the eight-day World Conference of Anti-Imperialist Journalists. After the visit, the BPP’s official newspaper stated:
“After careful investigation on the international scene, it is our considered opinion that it is none other than Comrade Kim Il Sung who is brilliantly providing the most profound Marxist-Leninist analysis, strategy, and tactical method for the total destruction of imperialism and the liberation of the oppressed peoples in our time.”
So decades before Rodman expressed affection and admiration for Kim Jong Un, the Black Panthers looked to his grandfather for ideological guidance. The relationship between the BPP and North Korea was so close that Cleaver, who later wrote the foreword to an English-language anthology on the speeches and writings of Kim Il Sung, sent his wife, Kathleen, to Pyongyang in 1970 to receive medical care. There she gave birth to a baby girl, Joju Younghi.
Of course, there is nothing to suggest that Rodman is a Black radical in the mold of Eldridge or Kathleen Cleaver. It’s pretty clear at this point that Rodman is primarily interested in promoting himself and not in “the liberation of the oppressed peoples in our time.” But as scholars like Vijay Prashad have noted, there is a long and rich history of anti-imperial Black and Asian solidarity, one that found popular expression in Malcolm X’s speeches on the subject, in Muhammed Ali’s famous pronouncement of “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” in the National Liberation Front’s self-designation as “Yellow Panthers,” and in the martial arts films of Bruce Lee.
So the sight of a Black man, already viewed as a traitor to racial, gender, and sexual norms in the U.S., sitting next to the leader of one-third of the Axis of Evil, drew from and added to this long-running fear of a Black-Asian alliance.
Perhaps Richardson recognized this affinity between Rodman and North Korea when he said that Rodman might be the only person who can secure Bae’s release. Not Jimmy Carter. Not Bill Clinton. Dennis Rodman.
Does this sound ridiculous? The fact that today, an attention-seeking basketball player-turned-reality television star might be the best U.S. representative to secure the release of a captive American citizen and ease tensions between Pyongyang and Washington, between Kim and Obama? Rodman thinks so.
“I’m not a diplomat, man, I’m just trying to go over there,” he told TMZ. “But I’m going to do one thing for you. We got a black president can’t even go talk to him, how about that one? … I’ll put it like this, Obama can’t do s**t. I don’t know why he won’t do it. So do that bulls**t.”
Richardson and Gregg share Rodman’s frustration with the Obama administration. Obama publicly pledged during his first presidential campaign that he would engage with the U.S.’s historic enemies. And yet, five years later, after coming close to war with North Korea, Obama still refuses to speak with North Korea who in June officially requested direct talks with Washington. Meanwhile, tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and joint U.S.-South Korea war games continue to escalate, threatening peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.
The real diplomats, however, refuse to engage in diplomacy by negotiating directly with Pyongyang, which has repeatedly and consistently asked to replace the sixty year-old armistice agreement with a peace treaty to finally end the Korean War. Only then, Carter, Gregg and other diplomats and scholars across the political spectrum argue, can North Korea feel secure without having to arm itself. Until then, we’re left with Rodman’s basketball diplomacy. And that’s ridiculous.
*Terry K. Park (terrykpark.com) is a Provost’s Dissertation Fellow and PhD Candidate in the Cultural Studies Graduate Group at the University of California Davis.