Dennis Rodman is back visiting his buddy Kim Jong-un on yet another PR trip—PR for Rodman, for the Irish betting company that's sponsoring his trip, and for North Korea itself. It comes days after a massive and deadly purge of perceived challenges to Kim's power, and as an American citizen has languished in a Korean prison for more than a year for conducting Christian missionary work. It's not clear how much about the country Rodman actually knows, or cares.
Shin Dong-hyuk knows about a very specific slice of the country. He spent 23 years in a North Korean labor camp—the first 23 years of his life. He was born there, his family imprisoned because his uncle had fled to South Korea. Shin escaped in 2005, and in the Washington Post this week, wrote an open letter to Rodman.
It reads, in part,
I happen to be about the same age as your friend Kim Jong Un. But if you ask him about me, he is likely to refer to me as "human scum." That is how his state-controlled press refers to me and all other North Koreans who have risked death by fleeing the country. Your friend probably also will deny that Camp 14 exists, which is the official position of his government. If he does, you can show him pictures of it on your phone.
Mr. Rodman, I cannot presume to tell you to cancel your trip to North Korea. It is your right as an American to travel wherever you wish and to say whatever you want. It is your right to drink fancy wines and enjoy yourself in luxurious parties, as you reportedly did in your previous trips to Pyongyang. But as you have a fun time with the dictator, please try to think about what he and his family have done and continue to do. Just last week, Kim Jong Un ordered the execution of his uncle. Recent satellite pictures show that some of the North's labor camps, including Camp 14, may be expanding. The U.N. World Food Programme says four out of five North Koreans are hungry. Severe malnutrition has stunted and cognitively impaired hundreds of thousands of children. Young North Korean women fleeing the country in search of food are often sold into human-trafficking rings in China and beyond.
I am writing to you, Mr. Rodman, because, more than anything else, I want Kim Jong Un to hear the cries of his people. Maybe you could use your friendship and your time together to help him understand that he has the power to close the camps and rebuild the country's economy so everyone can afford to eat.
No dictatorship lasts forever. Freedom will come to North Korea someday. When it does, my wish is that you will have, in some way, helped bring about change. I end this letter in the hope that you can use your friendship with the dictator to be a friend to the North Korean people.
(A book about Shin's life and escape was published earlier this year.)
In an interview with the Associated Press from his Pyongyang hotel yesterday, Rodman said, "I can't control what they do with their government, I can't control what they say or how they do things here...I'm just trying to come here as a sports figure and try to hope I can open the door for a lot of people in the country."
Basketball diplomacy is better than no diplomacy—détente only begins from common ground. But here's hoping this trip produces more than the fruits of the last two: photos of Rodman and Kim laughing, hugging, dining out with expensive wines, just generally being bros without a care in the world.
How Dennis Rodman can help the North Korean people[Washington Post]