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A Bull in Pyongyang


Dressed for his memoir launch, 1996.  

But seated in front of the gathered press, Rodman quickly gets defensive. “What about what we’re doing over here? What about Guanamatana?” he asks. “Why don’t we go over there and check that out? Ask Obama about that.”

The flack from Paddy Power tries to deflect, but Rodman won’t relent. “I’m not going there to be a politician. I’m going there to be his friend.” As the questioning continued, it becomes pretty clear that Bae didn’t come up in Rodman’s conversations with the Supreme Leader, and the Worm looks like an increasingly poor choice for a U.S. emissary.

And yet at the end of the dais sits Daniel Pinkston, the North Korea expert, looking stone-faced and serious as a heart attack. When Power decided to back Rodman's exhibition games, the bookie engaged Pinkston, who works for the International Crisis Group, to help ensure that the event was put on “in as responsible and sensible a way as possible,” according to Power.* Pinkston added visits to schools and sports clubs to the itinerary. “If you’re a kid and you see these stars and they play basketball with you, that is an experience that a kid will remember for the rest of his life,” explains Pinkston. “It undermines the narrative that describes Americans as evil and wicked and set to invade them at a moment’s notice.”

Pinkston sees cultural diplomacy as essential to bringing about reform, even if the cultural diplomat is someone as strange as Dennis Rodman. And he may have a point. The U.S. table-tennis team’s 1971 visit to China—the first time Americans had visited Beijing since 1949—is often credited with paving the way for President Nixon’s trip the next year.

“Dennis is the perfect person for this. He couldn’t be manipulated by the regime even if they wanted to,” says Pinkston. What better challenge to the most conformist, monolithic society on the planet than a six-foot-seven cross-dressing, cursing, boozing African-­American covered in tattoos and facial piercings? Besides, Pinkston argues, Rodman isn’t actually a diplomat, either implicitly or officially. “Sitting down in a stately room with private citizen Hillary Clinton creates a kind of status. Sitting down with Dennis Rodman doesn’t achieve that.” But even if Rodman is just bro-ing out, it’s not without its value.

Rodman seems to get this. “I’m not trying to go over there and rescue someone,” he says. “I’m trying to open doors. And once those doors are open, maybe things will be different.”

Still, the Worm can’t seem to comprehend how he got himself into this situation. “Why did Dennis Rodman have to come and break this ground?” he ponders aloud from the dais. “Why me?”

*This article has been corrected to show that Paddy Power did not hire the International Crisis Group.


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