Dennis Rodman worms his way into North Korea amid tensions
PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) – Flamboyant former NBA star Dennis Rodman is heading to North Korea with the VICE media company – tattoos, piercings, bad-boy reputation and all.
The American known as “The Worm” is set to arrive Tuesday in Pyongyang, becoming an unlikely ambassador for sports diplomacy at a time of heightened tensions between the US and North Korea.
Rodman, three members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, a VICE correspondent and a production crew from the company are visiting North Korea to shoot footage for a new TV show set to air on HBO in early April, VICE told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview before the group’s departure from Beijing.
It’s the second high-profile American visit this year to North Korea, a country that remains in a state of war with the US. It also comes two weeks after North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test in defiance of UN bans against atomic and missile activity.
Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, made a surprise four-day trip to Pyongyang, where he met with officials and toured computer labs in January, just weeks after North Korea launched a satellite into space on the back of a long-range rocket.
Washington, Tokyo, Seoul and others consider both the rocket launch and the nuclear test as provocative acts that threaten regional security.
North Korea characterises the satellite launch as a peaceful bid to explore space, but says the nuclear test was meant as a deliberate warning to Washington. Pyongyang says it needs to build nuclear weapons to defend itself against the US, and is believed to be trying to build an atomic bomb small enough to mount on a missile capable of reaching the mainland US.
VICE said the Americans hope to engage in a little “basketball diplomacy” in North Korea by running a basketball camp for children and playing pickup games with locals – and by competing alongside North Korea’s top athletes for a game Rodman said he hopes leader Kim Jong-un will attend.
“Is sending the Harlem Globetrotters and Dennis Rodman to the DPRK strange? In a word, yes,” said Shane Smith, the VICE founder who is host of the upcoming series. “But finding common ground on the basketball court is a beautiful thing.
“These channels of cultural communication might appear untraditional, and perhaps they are, but we think it’s important just to keep the lines open,” he said. “And if Washington isn’t going to send their Generals then we’ll send our Globetrotters.”
The Washington Generals were the Globetrotters’ regular, long-suffering opponents in a long-running series of comic exhibition games. DPRK is an acronym of North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
VICE, known for its sometimes irreverent journalism, has made two previous visits to North Korea, coming out with the “VICE Guide to North Korea”. The HBO series, which will air weekly starting April 5, features documentary-style news reports from around the world.
The Americans also will visit North Korea’s national monuments, the SEK animation studio and a new skate park in Pyongyang.
Promoting technology and sports are two major policy priorities of Kim Jong-un, who took power in December 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
But the often over-the-top Rodman, with his maze of tattoos, nose studs and neon-bleached hair, seems like an unlikely diplomat to a country where male fashion rarely ventures beyond military khaki and growing facial hair is forbidden.
The notoriously unpredictable and irrepressible Rodman said he has no special antics up his sleeve for making his mark on one of the world’s most regimented and militarised societies, a place where order and conformity are enforced with Stalinist fervour.
But he said he isn’t leaving any of his piercings behind.