‘Rodman-gate’: Can ‘Useful Idiots’ please Stop Shilling for North Korea?

rodman nk

Studying North Korea inevitably means people ask me pretty outlandish stuff. People have asked, if the North really believes long hair is bad for socialism, if that goiter on Kim Il Sung’s neck made him crazy, if Kim Jong Il’s platform shoes meant that he liked disco, and if North Korean women are good looking because a food shortage would mean everyone is slim. (I presume that last one is a reaction to obesity epidemic in the US.) So I tried to avoid this latest outbreak of Norko bizarreness with Rodman. But people keep asking me, so here a few thoughts to the effect that: no one should shill for NK – ever.

Call it yet another chapter in the history of clueless foreigners getting lost in and manipulated by North Korea – what Lenin used to call ‘useful idiots,’ knaves from the West who defended the Soviet experiment, blissfully ignorant of the camps. Who knows what to make of that utterly weird photograph of Rodman in bling and Kim Jong Un dressed like Mao. There are so many contradictions in there, it’s not even worth unpacking.

But I will say that it would sure be nice if show-boating foreigners who have no idea what they’re doing in NK would stop using it for self-promotion, and stop toadying to get their visa renewed. That would include not just Rodman but Eric Schmidt, Parag Khanna, Euna Lee and Laura Ling. Same goes for all these wannabe Christian missionaries who wander in and get caught, and then have to get fished out by Bill Clinton. Their freedom is inevitably at the cost of some back-room deal and pay-off to the North Korean elite: shaking down outsiders for cash, premium booze and smokes, and car parts is a well-established North Korean tradition. Let’s stop handing the North hostages to play as cards in brinksmanship.

There are two obvious problems with these sorts of trips:

1. Lest it need to be repeated – and I can’t imagine anyone wouldn’t know this – NK is a hellhole, and any credibility you lend to it with your reputation is immoral. So don’t write articles about how NK is not so bad after all. Don’t put some kind of positive spin on the leadership as actually technocratic, developmentalist, East Asianist, ‘focused on the future,’ etc. Don’t suggest that NK is ‘actually doing a pretty job job defending Korean identity’ while the South is a globalized multiculture. Don’t say ‘Kim Il Sung may have been a despot, but at least he: …built the Pyongyang subway/fought the Japanese/redistributed farmland/loved his wife/gave everyone free health care/genuinely believed in communism/etc.’ I’ve heard all that and more.

Some of this may be true; others not. But all of it blurs the issue or changes the subject by implicitly excusing NK awfulness. The issue that should drown out all others in dealing with NK is a human rights record worse than the Taliban. No discussion of NK should leave out this point – which I tried to argue a few weeks ago at CSIS-USC.

I hear similar talk in SK all the time. ‘Well, Park Chung-Hee overthrew the constitution, but he made us rich, so he’s pretty great.’ Or ‘Park Chung Hee’s wife may have abetted dictatorship, but she loved her family, so she wasn’t so bad.’ Hitler built the autobahn and was a stickler for dental care, but so what? Enough toadying.

And in the case of NK, the awfulness is SO awful, that it really should overshadow everything else.

2. North Korea desperately, desperately needs international recognition, so every time some western celebrity goes there, the regime manipulates it. The KCNA coverage – or so I heard, because I can’t actually get it in SK, because the national security law blocks it – portrayed Rodman as a supplicant coming to KJU, who ‘graciously’ took him to a game.

As BR Myers has argued, this idea that foreigners come a-begging to Pyongyang is actually pretty important for the regime. It suggests to the NK population that even though they are poor, others see NK as a some kind of great place they love to visit, or as your NK guide will tell you, “the whole world knows we Koreans are best!” And of course, the Kims graciously accept these benighted outsiders and share the light of juche with them. This is why whenever a US delegation has to go to NK to get out an American, the North always insists on a picture with Northern leaders. It helps legitimize the regime and suggest the benevolence of the Kims. At least Bill Clinton knew to look mildly pissed off in his photo, while Rodman called KJU a ‘friend for life.’ Good christ!

In short, Rodman should just be quiet. KJU is not his friend for life; it’s highly unlikely they’ll even meet ever again. Given that no one’s heard from Rodman in years, he may have done this just as a publicity stunt, just lie Ling and Lee also traded on their experience to get gigs. Visiting North Korea is morally defensible (although a big debate rages about that). I’ve done it, and I would recommend it to others. But the right approach of travellers to NK is moral distance: say as little as necessary, only bow when you absolutely must (which is only once), and never, ever indulge their craving for respect.

10 thoughts on “‘Rodman-gate’: Can ‘Useful Idiots’ please Stop Shilling for North Korea?

  1. Pertinent as always! The entire trip was probably pointless, but I had some hope that basketball would prove to be the way to Kim Jong Un’s heart. The VICE documentary that came out of this should be interesting, so maybe it wasn’t a complete loss.


  2. An excellent post, but I feel you somewhat box yourself in by making such a blanket condemnation. Perhaps there is more nuance here than at first blush?

    It is true that the elder President Park did some good in modernizing and rebuilding the country, and I don’t think it’s toadying to argue that his record was mixed. In terms of NK, I strongly agree that people who visit and praise the country cheapen themselves and enable a horrible regime– the CNN tourism piece you reviewed in a previous post last year was reprehensible. It reminded me of Trudeau cozying up to Fidel Castro in the 70s to twit U.S. noses.

    Is it so with everyone? If a Bill Clinton visits NK he may do so irresponsibly and is manipulated into serving a racist ideology within the country, but is this so with a semi-washed-up basketball player? The regime cannot itself believe that it justifies itself on the world stage when the press laugh at this boy-child Dr. Evil watching hoop-shooting. Perhaps domestic propaganda lauds his visit as a type of homage to the great Korean people, but how much mileage can they get out of a basketball player? I thought basketball would be another western, decadent sport to be avoided anyway.

    As ever, I remain convinced that the NK regime is a gangsterocracy, but an idea has appealed to me lately that Jong-Un really does want to open the country up– either for good reasons or for the selfish and childish reason that he just likes basketball, Disney, and video games– and perhaps the bomb tests are intended to placate the military. It is only a theory. But I don’t mind at all if M.C. Hammer or Honey Boo Boo visits NK and says nice things about it. It gives the regime the de-fanging it needs through international laughter and ridicule.


    • I like that last line a lot. My sense is mixed on the rest.

      Autocrats desperately need legitimacy, especially in an era with lots of democracies. More democracies means a wider spotlight on how illegitimate non-democracies are. So all these trips by celebrities like Schmidt or Rodman help make NK look more ‘normal’ – less like the freakish slave state it is.

      You may be right that these are signs of NK opening up, but the right way to handle an autocracy opening is what is happening in Burma right now. Wait for the regime to make real changes, before you start going over there. Billy Joel went to the USSR after Gorbachev showed he was a real reformer.

      More generally, I think westerners should know better than to praise autocrats just because they are technically proficient or whatever. People say the same thing about Lee Kwan Yew and the ‘Beijing Consensus.’ I disagree with that, and it strikes me as a luxury of already living in a liberal democracy to act as if those are attributes are not the most important elements of government. To my mind, liberals really shouldn’t talk that way.


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