Jason Mojica/Associated Press
Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman watch North Korean and U.S. players in an exhibition basketball game at an arena in Pyongyang on Thursday.
Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman watch North Korean and U.S. players in an exhibition basketball game at an arena in Pyongyang on Thursday. Jason Mojica/Associated Press
Strange as it may seem, a pierced, tattooed and occasionally cross-dressing former basketball star is now one of the West's leading experts on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Former NBA star Dennis Rodman, following his improbable visit to Pyongyang this week, has become the only Westerner to have had a one-on-one with the reclusive Kim, who by all accounts enjoys basketball at least as much as testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
China's Xinhua news agency reports that Rodman and Kim sat together Thursday watching a basketball game involving North Korea's top players and three members of the Harlem Globetrotters, who were part of the tour. Xinhua reports:
"During the match, Rodman, who wore dark glasses and a hat, sat to the left of Kim Jong Un. Without any translators, the two talked directly to each other and laughed, witnesses said."
"Certainly he's had the most extensive interaction with Kim of any American," says Victor Cha, a North Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Even former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, who spent four days in North Korea in January, were unable to arrange a meeting with the country's leader.
Rodman, at the end of his two-day visit on Friday, gushed effusively about the 30-year-old North Korean leader, who assumed power barely a year ago after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. The younger Kim's grandfather, Kim Il Sung, is the founder of the Stalinist Korean state. Rodman said Kim "is like his grandfather and his father, who are great leaders. He is an awesome kid, very honest and loves his wife so much."
According to The Associated Press, Rodman also said of the young North Korean leader that "he's proud, his country likes him — not like him, love him, love him. ... Guess what, I love him. The guy's really awesome."
At first blush, Rodman's analysis of the North Korean leadership doesn't look to be decisive in solving the ongoing crises over Pyongyang's nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Even so, when the State Department and Korea watchers in the West are reduced to reading the proverbial tea leaves to figure out what makes Kim tick, something is better than nothing, experts say.
"It would be valuable to hear from Dennis Rodman about his experience," concedes Scott Snyder, director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"His interaction is more significant for what it might tell us about Kim the person," Snyder says. "Most of [Kim's] public appearances have been geared toward a domestic audience, and this public appearance is an interaction with a foreigner that appears not to be as much about an official agenda."
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell on Thursday declined to comment on Rodman's visit, saying it was "a private trip by a private individual."
But "if I were in the U.S. government, I would want to reach out" to Rodman to debrief him, Snyder says.
"I've heard a lot of first trip reports from a lot of people that went to North Korea, but I think it would be fascinating to get his impressions," he says, but adds that he "wouldn't necessarily stake a lot on it."
Cha agrees. "Sure, I'd love to hear what he had to say." There are things he'd like to know, such as how well Kim speaks English and who were among his entourage.
While Cha doesn't think Rodman is likely to have learned anything of strategic value on this visit, there's always next time — maybe.
After Thursday's game, Rodman sounded like he might be back, telling the North Korean leader that he'd made "a friend for life."
And for Kim Jong Un these days, friends are hard to come by.