The Harlem Globetrotters basketball team’s recent trip to North Korea should have been hailed as an effective cultural diplomatic venture. This trip was made possible by the official invitation of the North Korean President Kim Jung-Un, and, headlined by the star power of Dennis Rodman, should have opened a serious discussion in US foreign policy circles over non-confrontational methods to engage with North Korea. Instead, the trip gathered a storm of disapproval from the U.S. media, whipping up a media frenzy of sensational reporting and aggressive bombast towards North Korea’s government that was perhaps more provocative to the North Koreans than the passage of U.S. Senate Resolution 298, which can be construed as authorizing preemptive war against North Korea.
Resolution 298 passed with the unanimous vote of the Senate in the same time period that North Koreans were being dazzled by the basketball exploits of the Globetrotters. Also important, Kim Jung-Un is reported to be a great lover of the National Basketball Association, and his invitation to the Globetrotters to come play in North Korea was one of the great “opening” moments of international engagement that the country has had. Looking at the pictures taken on the day that Kim Jung-Un and the leading members of the politically dominant Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) met the Harlem Globetrotters, the joy on their faces is clearly evident. The cultural exchange between the pinnacle of North Korea’s leadership and American basketball players that day will not long be forgotten in North Korea’s ruling circles; a pit then that it was barely mentioned in the U.S.
The news stories on North Korea were not focused on the first game in what might someday be looked back upon as the start of a Basketball Diplomacy between North Korea and the U.S. Media reporting on the Globetrotters’ cultural diplomatic trip was overwhelmingly negative and focused on the particular eccentricities of Dennis Rodman’s character (his basketball nickname the “Worm” was also repeatedly and smugly referenced), and the depravity of Kim Jung-Un. Rather than focus on the possibility that the invitation was extended to the Globetrotters’ out of an attempt to form a personal connection to President Barack Obama, who Kim Jung-Un knows is also a huge basketball fan, the U.S. media decided to label the North Korean President as a “madman,” whose recent nuclear weapons testing would lead to a global war.
While it is understandable that the media and the international community would be upset by the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the world has been living with a nuclear armed North Korea for several decades. In spite of the fear in the media over the most recent North Korean nuclear weapons tests, it is highly unlikely that North Korea will go use its nuclear weapons, even in spite of Kim Jung-Un’s recent fiery rhetoric of a North Korean preemptive nuclear strike upon its enemies. North Korea’s President had seemingly went in the matter of a short period of time from cherubic over the possibility of engaging basketball diplomacy with the outside world to being prepared to diabolically call down destruction upon it. There is no coincidence that this dramatic change in language was the result of frustration on the part of Kim Jung-Un at the vitriol spewed towards the Globetrotters’ trip.
Kim Jung-Un’s recent threat of preemptive nuclear war echoes the threat inherent in Section 3, sub-clause 7 of U.S. Senate Resolution 298 which can easily be construed to approve of preemptive war against North Korea either by unilateral U.S. military action or through coordination with U.S. allies in the Pacific Asian region. Neither of these threats, hopefully, should be seen as more than bellicose words that are the product of stale policy thinking and the frustration of false cultural diplomatic starts. Cultural diplomacy, basketball diplomacy, should not be laughed at and scorned, but viewed as a great opportunity to change the failing communication between North Korea and the outside world.
Basketball diplomacy, like the Ping Pong diplomacy held between the U.S. and China in the 1970s, offers a means for the U.S. and its allies to constructively engage with North Korean society. What should have been ironic and thought-provoking for the U.S. media was not that North Korea tested a nuclear weapon and invited a U.S. basketball team to Pyongyang, but that it was Kim Jung-Un, and not Barack Obama, who passed the ball into the others’ court in the interest of cultural engagement.
Michael Bassett is the Senior Asia Analyst at 361 Security