It continues to be one of sport’s most unlikely spectacles — Dennis Rodman, American ambassador. Yet on Sunday, there he was on national television, acting as an unofficial spokesman for stronger ties between the United States and North Korea.
Sport is a major part of modern life and, driven by an Akira-style media, is worldwide in its audience.
Sporting events like the Olympics, the World Cup, the European Championship, the Africa Cup of Nations, and the Super Bowl are some of the most-watched events across the world.
Last week, ex-NBA player Dennis Rodman (nicknamed “The Worm”) and several members of the Harlem Globetrotters went to North Korea to meet Kim Jong Un and participate in basketball exhibition events as part of a VICE documentary that will air on HBO.
In many ways, the experience played out like your typical buddy comedy. Guy plays basketball, guy has facial piercings and attends a book promotion wearing a wedding dress, guy claims he’s going to marry himself.
Then said guy travels to a secretive, totalitarian country where nuclear weapons have been tested to meet and talk about the Chicago Bulls with said country’s leader, a man we know little about, but whose father once allegedly shot 11 holes in one during a round of golf and claimed he could control weather with his mind.
“To succeed in sports requires practice, discipline and determination; important skills that help young people succeed in all areas of their lives.”
The “nonsense” promulgated by the north in relation to events surrounding the birth of Kim Jong-il, of double rainbows magically appearing at the moment of his birth, and army generals speaking after his funeral of snow falling like rain weeping for the loss of the “Dear Leader,” is all mysticism, to some devoid of any rational or scientific content, and has nothing to do with a materialist understanding of the world around us, and nothing to do with socialism.
It has more to do with the legacy of Confucianism, Buddhism and mysticism and how such ideas have shaped the people of Korea and many other peoples—not just in the east.
Korea, north and south, is shaped by the “Cold War” tensions between the west and the Soviet Union and those between the Soviet Union and a China dominated, as it was then, by Maoist ideology, coupled with the tensions that still bubble to the surface between the two Korean states themselves.
The partition of Korea was itself the product of the Cold War, which in Korea turned into a very hot war of savage proportions. Hundreds of thousands died on both sides. Most cities and towns in the north were flattened by the saturation bombing of the United States and its allies.
As in all peasant societies, religion has played and no doubt still plays a role in people’s lives, shaping how they see and understand things. To western eyes, much of what we see and understand about the east is influenced by how little we know and understand of eastern religions and cultures.
But, here’s a riddle that seems to have escaped the notice of United States policymakers as anxious to preserve “stability” in Egypt as they are on the Korean Peninsula.
If the enemy of your enemy is your friend, then how come Washington’s long favorite friend in the Arab world, Egypt, is so cozy with one of Washington’s bitterest enemies, North Korea?
And if your friend is providing a base of operations for sales of missiles and other stuff to all your foes in the Middle East, then how come your friend is your friend?
All of which points to this puzzle: Why has the United States, since Jimmy Carter as US president engineered the Camp David accords in 1978 and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty the next year, showered billions of dollars in aid on North Korea while Egypt was double-dealing in North Korean missiles, technology and advice?
The answer seems to be that American politicos and envoys, in a long-running saga of supreme diplomatic casuistry, incompetence and all that, preferred to downplay if not ignore Egypt’s ever-tightening ties to North Korea in the overriding interests of guaranteeing a shaky peace in the Middle East.
For two years the United States, South Korea and Japan have intermittently talked of an all-or-nothing deal with North Korea on the nuclear standoff, which President Lee Myung Bak has called a “Grand Bargain.” Egypt’s peace overtures to Israel in the late 1970s are the role model for such a bargain.
The allies currently facing North Korea also struggle to coordinate priorities. South Korea faces a security and existential threat from its northern neighbor. Japan demands resolution to the abduction issue and the threat posed by North Korea’s missile program. The United States is concerned above all else with trying to defend the NPT and a shaky global non-proliferation regime.
Without the potential for an Egyptian style uprising or Grand Bargain for Korea, and heeding the need to prevent war, the only viable option left is an incremental, trust-building approach. This will ultimately be a long and difficult task, demanding both bilateral and multilateral efforts to address the range of concerns of all the major actors. If the dynamic of perpetual conflict on the Korean peninsula is ever to be changed, however, there is no alternative.
Few things are as widely followed, understood and propagated on a mass scale as modern sports are, argues “Gaming the World: How Sports Are Reshaping Global Politics and Culture,” authors Andrei Markovits and Lars Rensmann. While the rules, sanctions, size of field, numbers of players etc., may differ from one sport to another, they are the same in every country.
From New York to London, Nairobi to Tehran, Beijing to Buenos Aires, a goal is a goal, a touchdown a touchdown, and the meaning of a red card or the losing of a wicket, can all be universally understood.
Sport is a language everyone of us can speak,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, and its power as a tool in a country’s public diplomacy arsenal is being increasingly recognized. Mixing sport and diplomacy can help meet various foreign policy objectives: to bring about regime change, open the door for dialogue when it is closed to politics and to arouse a sense of national pride. This mixture however, is by no means “new.”
Do the benefits outweigh the dangers in mixing diplomacy and sport?’
Much like the Internet, sport diplomacy can be used both as a force for “good” as well as for “bad”. It can incite positive change and open the door for dialogue but at the same time it can reaffirm boundaries and identities, further solidifying divisions.
The beauty of sport is only given relevance by its ugliness – in the case of the Munich Games, the fact that they went ahead, despite such tragic beginnings. This timeless dualism is the reality of sport. Terrorism, war and violence are manifest in sport. Sport is more closely associated – in the sports fans mind, at least – with competition, winning, war, violence, than it is with the business of peace.
But the institutes of sport and diplomacy are universal in scope and nature, and working in tandem can spread positive sporting values such as mutual respect, discipline, tolerance and compassion among acrimonious political relationships.
“Sports can be a powerful medium to reach out and build relationships…across cultural and ethnic divides, with a positive message of shared values: values such as mutual respect, tolerance, compassion, discipline, equality of opportunity and the rule of law. In many ways, sports can be a more effective foreign policy resource than the carrot or the stick.”
Only certain cultures or segments of society show strong interest in speaking English, travelling to the United States, attending a classical music event, or participating in a discussion on human rights. On the other hand, virtually all cultures and all citizens have an interest in and appreciation for sport.
This makes it one of the best methods for exchange – especially for diplomats operating in an age when the opinions of foreign publics are so crucial for success.
Sports-diplomacy can be a ‘soft’ way of exploring or signaling a foreign policy shift between estranged states. The best example of this is, of course, the 1971 case of Ping-Pong Diplomacy, however a more recent example involves the cricket-
life and culture. Americans learn about foreign cultures and the challenges young people from overseas face today.
When you think of diplomats and foreign policy specialists, you probably envision people in suits and ties, carrying attache cases, clustered in meeting rooms with interpreters rapidly talking between them. But an integral part of the U.S. State Department’s mission is carried out by envoys in shorts, T-shirts, and cross-trainers with nary a briefcase or file folder in site.
Publics the world over seem exhausted after the extraordinary amount of violence of the twentieth century. These publics are more likely to be engaged by soft power overtures from nations, such as cultural or sporting exchanges. In the post-modern information age, sport, culture and diplomacy are no longer niche or backwater institutions but powerful foreign policy tools.
Expressions of hard power through diplomacy based on traditional, high politics of arms treaties, border demarcation or alliances (while still important, obviously) does not hold the same amount of attention among the public as they used to.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said, “Actually, our sport’s exchanges are the most popular exchanges we do. And when I go to other countries around the world and we talk about what kind of exchanges that people are looking for, very often a leader will say, how about a sports exchange?”
According to Rodman’s agent, Dennis saw the trip as a “chance to speak directly to Kim Jong (Un) that the only way to go is with peace, not war.” While the means for securing harmony – a wild ex-NBA star playing and talking about basketball – is unusual, maybe it represents the type of off-the-wall, creative diplomacy America is going to have to engage in to make sure North Korea doesn’t attempt to give us “death by merciless strikes,” which is what a North Korean media editorial stated in an announcement during Rodman’s visit.
Along with football, basketball is enormously popular in North Korea, where it is not uncommon to see basketball hoops in hotel car parks or in school playgrounds.
North Koreans have limited exposure to US pop culture but Michael Jordan, a former teammate of Rodman when they both played for the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, is well known.
During a historic visit to North Korea in 2000, the then secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, presented Kim Jong-il, an NBA fan, with a basketball signed by Jordan that later went on display in the huge cave at Mount Myohyang that holds gifts to the leaders.
Thursday’s exhibition game with two Americans playing on each team alongside North Koreans ended in a 110-110 tie. Following the game, Kim threw an “epic feast” for the group, making round after round of toasts.
The Arirang “Mass Games” are a stunning spectacle of choreography and synchronicity involving 100,000 dancers tumbling and leaping in unison while students use placards to create a huge, cascading wall of images as a backdrop.
“He’s a good guy to me,” Rodman said. “As a person to person, he’s my friend. I don’t condone what he does.”
There are many questions thrown up by developments within the DPRK that we must continue to try to understand and attempt to explain. The family dynasty of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un should be understood as representing continuity and a united front in response to the continued two-pronged approach of the United States in applying economic sanctions and military pressures.
The partition of Korea by the United States has left a deep mark on the Korean people, north and south—in the south creating a society that suffered decades of repression and in the north an atmosphere of a society under siege.
The continued interference by the United States and Japan will not bring peace, unity or stability to the people of Korea. It is up to the Korean people, north and south, to solve their differences and to unite if they desire to. This can be done only with the removal of all foreign forces and nuclear weapons from the south.
The Korean people, north and south, need the support and solidarity of progressive opinion to end the partition and control by the United States and to allow them to decide for themselves the future direction of their country.
With the power to unite, awaken hope and inspire change, the mixture of sport and diplomacy is certainly an area we will be seeing more of in the future. We just have to keep in mind that sport diplomacy should in no way be seen as a quick-fix measure.
When sport is mixed in with other facets of diplomacy and concrete foreign policy changes, perhaps the positive vision articulated by Nelson Mandela can be further actualized.
However, based on the negative backlash caused by Rodman’s visit, it seems pretty certain President Obama will not be taking credit for the diplomatic mission in the future, even if the U.S. and North Korea build a friendly relationship and the Raptors leave Toronto and become the Pyongyang Kim Jong Uns.
But, in my opionion, maybe sending someone like Dennis Rodman to meet with the leaders of North Korea is a good thing.
Live and Learn. We All Do.
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