Basketball star-cum-celebrity apprentice-cum-cultural envoy Dennis Rodman is in North Korea for yet another rendezvous with his “lifelong friend” Kim Jong-un, the Supreme Leader of the hermit kingdom. When Rodman last visited Pyongyang in 2013, he blasted then President Barack Obama for nurturing hostile relations between the U.S. and the pariah state. But now, under Donald Trump’s watch, the flamboyant celebrity’s travel plans take on a whole other dimension.
Indeed, Trump is also a friend of Rodman’s, and both have brought a similar Reality TV flare to the serious business of international politics. As Rodman prepared for his expedition Monday, President Trump was busy turning his Cabinet meeting into a strange episode of how-much-I-love-my-boss. One-by-one, in front of the television cameras, Trump’s cabinet secretaries showered him in stilted praise reminiscent of contestants’ eleventh-hour flattery when he hosted the Celebrity Apprentice. Or, perhaps, a Kim Jong-un appearance before the Central Committee?
Trump and Rodman in 2009 — Photo: Open Sports
By now, what was once disregarded as a television star’s antics has been fully assimilated into the political playbook. The American president has vowed to chart new ground in international relations with the same off-the-cuff brio, promising to solve in a snap such intractable problems as Middle East peace, global terrorism and, yes, the stand-off with North Korea.
Rodman, 56, headed to Pyongyang with four Americans sitting in North Korean prisons, including Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old University of Virginia student whom the People’s Republic accused of “hostile acts” in early 2016 in a case that made headlines. [UPDATE: Warmier's parents told CNN on Tuesday that he had been released.] Some wonder if President Trump has sent Rodman to negotiate the release of Warmbier and his compatriots. After all, Christian missionary Kenneth Bae credited the former NBA star with a role in his 2014 liberation.
No doubt, any successful prisoner release orchestrated by Rodman would be a PR coup for the President. But what if Trump has even bigger plans for the trip? The President has already tossed out decades of standing US policy toward Pyongyang, saying he was ready to meet directly with Kim Jong-un to try to diffuse the threat of North Korea’s nuclear program. Can a thoroughly tattooed and much-pierced basketball star be the man to set up that encounter? Sounds like the stuff of Reality TV.