LOS ANGELES – In his recent sprint up to North Korea, former pro basketball star Dennis Rodman may have come across to the world as totally ridiculous in the role of self-appointed emissary for peninsular peace.
But somehow his effort did make sense. After all, by accepted standards of nation-state behavior, that country itself comes across as absurd. Doesn’t a Rodman sort of fit in there?
One never knows: When the ridiculous meets the absurd, something unexpected might come out. What might that be?
Perhaps the young leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Jong Un, will seize his current moment in the Rodman-engineered world media spotlight and agree to revive his tragically impoverished poor and awfully governed country. The DPRK simply is not working.
Now might just be the time for a big change of direction. Not only is Kim in the first phase of his leadership, succeeding his late father, but so too is his counterpart in South Korea. That’s Park Geun Hye, the first woman president of the Republic of Korea. Perhaps she can bring the magic of a woman’s touch to the roughhouse macho politics of the Korean Peninsula. What’s more, she heads a tremendously successful country, a rough but practicing democracy, and an ally of the U.S.
It is true that the 30-something Kim up north can claim none of her advantages; nor could his father or his father’s father claim remotely comparable achievements in developing their nation state. But he is new to the job, and in political terms, the world is still according him his “honeymoon” period.
The same is true for Japan’s new leader Shinzo Abe; so too for China’s new leader Xi Jinping. And then you have the important “old hands,” very key players including U.S. President Barack Obama, in the early months of his second term, and — perhaps as significantly — U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.
Ban has three years to go as only the second Asian secretary general in the world’s organization’s history (and its first Korean). If Asia, the world’s largest continent, could use anything more helpful than an end to the technical state of war on the Korean Peninsula, it’s hard to see right away what it would be.
North Korea may be a mess of discredited ideology, misgovernance and clandestine prison camps, but it is heavily armed, with rockets and nukes and a notoriously bad temper. The late Warren Christopher, Bill Clinton’s first secretary of state, once told me that the tense Peninsula invariably hit the top five on any president’s foreign policy worry list.
After Rodman departed North Korea, in fact, the country’s Army Supreme Command made some new threats.
What a dramatic lift a new deal for Korea would give not just Asia but the entire world as well. The U.N.’s Ban, a former foreign minister of South Korea, is eager to want to help erode in any way possible the tension between North and South. Indeed, he probably would give almost anything to see major improvement in peninsular relations before he leaves high office in 2016. To this end, he will always select negotiations over threats as the way forward.
Maybe it’s time for a high-level visit from one of the above. Of course none of this makes any sense if deal-seeking VIPs are going to be permitted to do no more than shoot baskets and fire off jokes. Rodman has already done that.
Something else — new and dramatic — has to happen. What’s needed is for the supreme leader of North Korea to wake up and smell the opportunity to change the course of history — by changing the governance course of North Korea.
The young Kim needs to seize the moment and receive some VIP delegation to hammer out terms to end, formally, the Korean War; to offer a denuclearization plan; and to propose the outlines of an economic-development master plan that is plausible and credible.
Clown-job or not, Rodman’s fast break to North Korea did have the merit of drawing the world’s attention anew to this monster of a geopolitical and humanitarian problem on the Korean Peninsula. Because of his celebrity as a famous athlete — and usually this counts for more in America than the celebrity of a true artist — he is able to turn on the brightest lights on any court on which he chooses to play.
Maybe we should keep sending our wacky celebrities up to Pyongyang. What’s the harm — especially if it somehow helps pave the way for serious people to try to do the right thing?
American journalist Tom Plate is a university professor and author of the “Giants of Asia” book series.