Dennis Rodman is in North Korea, but the U.S. government doesn’t seem to care.
Rodman traveled to the rogue, nuclear-armed nation this week under the sponsorship of Irish bookmaker Paddy Power, training North Korean basketball players for a game against ex-NBA pros, to be held in Pyongyang Jan. 8, leader Kim Jong Un’s 31st birthday.
The former Chicago Bulls star is a self-proclaimed “friend for life” with Kim, a purported fan of the 1990s Bulls teams of which Rodman was a member. Rodman has previously visited Pyongyang with Vice magazine, to hang out and take in an exhibition game between North Korean players and the Harlem Globetrotters, for an August episode of the Brooklyn-based magazine’s HBO show.
His latest visit comes on the heels of North Korea’s highly publicized execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, a well-known government figure who was accused of betraying Kim’s “warmest paternal love” in a long, written accusation. It also comes as North Korea recently released one American held in detention, Merrill Newman, and as American Kenneth Bae remains imprisoned there, sentenced to 15 years in a labor camp.
Given the mystery that surrounds North Korea as a country and Kim Jong Un as its young leader, the lack of any U.S. diplomatic relationship with Pyongyang, and the importance of North Korea to the United States – with its nuclear-weapons program setting regional allies (and the rest of the world) on edge, and with Bae still held there – one might see Rodman’s expedition as a potential diplomatic icebreaker, if not a means to gather some intelligence on how things are going in North Korea’s government after Jang’s execution caused widespread speculation about a shakeup.
The U.S. government does not see it that way.
The State Department said this week that it has not spoken with Rodman about his trip and that it doesn’t see much utility in doing so.
“We have not been contacted by Mr. Rodman. He’s not there for the U.S. government,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Thursday. “What we should be focused on is not an ex-NBA player from however many years ago who decides to take a trip to North Korea; it’s on what the North Korea Government’s doing, on its brutality, on its continued violation of its international obligations. That’s what we’re focused on here, certainly, not what Dennis Rodman is or isn’t doing.”
Harf had previously said she is “just not aware of any way Dennis Rodman fits into” advancing U.S. foreign policy goals.
The State Department says it’s open to talking to any citizen who goes to North Korea and returns, but it does not have any plans to receive a debrief from Rodman. His trip there appears to purely private and wholly unconnected to the U.S. government’s concerns over North Korea’s human-rights abuses, nuclear posturing, or Bae’s continued detention, despite Rodman’s status as the only American known to have such a personal relationship with Kim Jong Un.