North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and former NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman hug in Pyongyang. North Korea's KCNA news agency reported that a mixed basketball game of visiting U.S. basketball players and North Korean players was held at Ryugyong Jong Ju Yong Gymnasium on Feb. 28. (REUTERS/KCNA)
Everybody needs a BFF – especially 30-year-old Kim Jong-un, the dictator-in-chief of North Korea, whose Chinese allies are looking distinctly chilly since they helped to slap United Nations sanctions on the beleaguered country.
Being unfriended by 1 billion people must be a bit of a blow. So it’s touching that NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman is once more stepping up to the hoop for his new pal. They’re holidaying together in August, Rodman told a North Dakota TV station, KXJB.
And he added, “I don’t condone what he does, but he’s my friend.”
Human Rights Watch, a spectre at Kim ‘n Dennis’s love fest, says that Kim’s reign has so far had “no positive impact on the country’s dire human rights record. More than 200,000 North Koreans, including children, are imprisoned in camps where many perish from forced labour, inadequate food, and abuse by guards.
“Arbitrary arrest, lack of due process, and torture are pervasive problems. There is no independent media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom. Government policies have continually subjected North Koreans to food shortages and famine.” HRW is pressing for a UN commission to look into possible crimes against humanity.
None of that seems to bother the flamboyant, stubble-chinned, body-pierced American basketball hero or the chubby, reclusive, shock-haired supremo, who bonded last month when Rodman attended a rare basketball exhibition in Pyongyang.
So what do they have in common?
Kim is said to be a fan of Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan, though it’s probably a state secret in North Korea (even the identity of Kim’s wife is secret there). Beyond that, we know he likes shouting at the army, hearing an anthem sing his praises several times a day and running a ship so tight that tens of thousands have been squeezed to death by overwork, slow starvation and brutality.
As for Rodman, his publicity-hound antics may appeal to Kim, who had to resort to much costlier nuclear threats to focus the public eye. And Rodman, like Kim, is not shy of going rogue. As Kim’s short term in office has only managed to lower North Korea’s already abysmal world reputation, he can also draw some inspiration from his new amigo: isn’t Dennis known as the “Great Rebounder?”
Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights as a correspondent and bureau chief from the former Soviet Union to the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the Middle East and South Asia. She has won both national and international awards, collaborated on two Emmy-winning films and is one of the few journalists to have a war requiem written to her work.