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Sports diplomacy wasted on North Korea

By George Tatoris

North Korea is not a good fit with ‘basketball diplomacy.’ (AP Photo)
North Korea is not a good fit with ‘basketball diplomacy.’ (AP Photo)

Dennis Rodman’s attempt at “basketball diplomacy” is a downright failure, and not because it was spearheaded by an eccentric man with a penchant for dying his hair pretty colors and cross-dressing — although that may have taken a small part. It failed because of the backwards country he brought his “basketball diplomacy” to.

I admit, I love the idea of sports diplomacy. It’s great to see two sides that would normally be at each other’s throats put aside differences for an hour or two to play a game that both sides enjoy. But, North Korea is about the absolute worst choice to conduct this sort of diplomacy with.

At a passing glance, it may seem North Korea is a perfect candidate for Rodman’s little diplomatic excursion. The Kims have hated virtually everything about the West and its culture except for one thing: basketball.

Kim Jong Il was such a huge fan of the 1990s Bulls that his most-prized possession is a Michael Jordan-signed basketball and Kim Jong Un reportedly played the sport all the time while attending school in Switzerland. So why not ease some political tension with a little game of basketball? It should work, right?


You see, sports diplomacy only works if both sides are willing to set their differences aside in the first place and have good sportsmanship. The Ping-pong Diplomacy of the early 1970s only worked because China had just about exhausted itself with their Cultural Revolution and years of isolation. They wanted change. North Korea, on the other hand, does not.

North Korea and its citizens have been isolated from the world since the country’s creation, and they are not looking to change that anytime soon. In fact, just one month before Rodman’s trip, the Kim regime executed the one man in a position to do some good with the right mindset to do it: Kim Jong Un’s uncle and former government official Jang Song Thaek.

In fact, North Korea has become more reclusive than ever since its latest Supreme Leader took over. North Korea’s only ally, China, has not received one visit from Kim since he took office.

In addition to all of this, you also have Kim Jong Un, a ruthless dictator and, according to a 2009 Washington Post article, an equally ruthless basketball player. According to someone who played with him while he attended school in Switzerland, Kim “hated to lose” and thinks that “winning is everything”.

The competitive nature of Kim would turn what was originally a heartfelt meeting of two powers with opposing viewpoints putting aside their differences for a riveting game of hoops into an international show of one-upmanship, which goes against the very idea of sports diplomacy. (We’d still beat them.)


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