How Dennis Rodman met Kim Jong Un

Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong Un Kyodo News Stills via Getty Images

How Dennis Rodman met Kim Jong Un


How Dennis Rodman met Kim Jong Un

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Excerpted from The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, published on June 11, 2020 by PublicAffairs.

You can buy this book on Amazon here.

Being an isolated autocrat can be socially limiting. Kim Jong Un has his brother and sister, attached to him by blood, and a wife, attached to him by his father. There is a fawning coterie who are extremely nice to him, telling him he’s the best and always letting him win. But do they really like him? Or do they just fear for their lives?

Still, no amount of social deprivation can fully explain Kim’s choice of celebrity friend in 2013: the six-foot-eight-inch former Chicago Bull and B-list celebrity Dennis Rodman.

That year, the one-time NBA star embarked on the first of three trips to North Korea, during which he and his entourage not only met but partied with the leader. This nonconformist attention seeker was embraced by the leader of a country where conformity and reticence are essential for survival.

Unlikely as it may seem, given that his country was founded on hatred of the United States, Kim Jong Un was a big Bulls fan.

When he arrived in Switzerland in the summer of 1996, the Bulls had just won the NBA championship series. Michael Jordan was named MVP, but Rodman, with his knack for grabbing rebounds, was credited with a major role in securing the victory. The Bulls, with Jordan and Rodman, would go on to win the next two championships too.

The idea of sending a Chicago Bull as an emissary to meet the new leader of North Korea began as a serious one. In 2009, when it became evident that Kim Jong Un had been designated his father’s successor, the CIA actively discussed to try to get Dennis Rodman to go to Pyongyang. But the idea didn’t go anywhere.

Then in 2012, not long after Kim Jong Un took over and before any American had met him, Barack Obama invited some North Korea experts to the Oval Office to seek their advice on how to deal with the new young leader.

One of them also suggested sending a former Bull. It didn’t go anywhere either.

Up in New York, a team of hipster television producers at Vice Media was having the same idea. They wanted to make a program about North Korea, and they wanted to get to the leader. How better than to tap into his love of the Chicago Bulls?

When Jordan wasn’t interested, they approached Rodman. The world-famous defensive player known as the Worm was also known to be up for the unusual and also available for hire. Would he be interested in a little paid “basketball diplomacy”? Yes, he was.

The Vice crew, led by producer Jason Mojica, took the news back to the North Koreans in New York that they’d secured a Chicago Bull, and the North Koreans relayed the good news up the hierarchy in Pyongyang. They got a green light.

It was only then that the North Koreans realized that Vice wasn’t your average television news program, that it was staffed by millennials with tattoos who prided themselves on their disruptive approach to media.

But the North Korean diplomats couldn’t go back on this deal now. The Great Successor was expecting a Chicago Bull. So they insisted on having a meeting at HBO, which had bought Vice’s show, to try to straighten out a few things.

There, in HBO’s office in Manhattan, the North Koreans told Nina Rosenstein, the network’s senior vice president, that they loved watching Homeland. Umm, Rosenstein responded, that’s on Showtime. She asked them if they’d seen Game of Thrones. They gave her a blank look. They left the meeting with box sets.

Still, the North Koreans were apparently sufficiently reassured to allow the visit to go ahead. So on February 26, 2013, Rodman and his handlers flew from Beijing to Pyongyang, accompanied by three members of the Harlem Globetrotters, a team executive, and the Vice Media crew. Vice wanted the Globetrotters because, with their hilarious on-court antics, they were “the most natural ambassadors of basketball in the game.”

It was to be a trip like no other.

Rodman and his entourage expected to lead a basketball camp – a bunch of kids in a high school gym, they thought – and play in an exhibition game.

They arrived at a ten-thousand-seat stadium in Pyongyang to find the under-eighteen national team waiting for them. The bleachers were empty, but this was clearly going to be no casual pickup game.

The following day, Rodman and his Globetrotters turned up at the stadium for the exhibition game. This time the stands were not empty. Thousands of people sat waiting patiently. Then, all of a sudden and almost in unison, everyone leapt to their feet and started clapping and cheering “Manse!” or “Live for ten thousand years!”

There he was.

“I’m sitting there on the bench and all of a sudden, he walks in. This little short guy,” Rodman said on a documentary filmed during the trip. “And I’m like, wait a minute. Who is that? That must be the president of the country. And he walks in with his wife and all his leaders and stuff like that.”

Kim Jong Un, in a black Mao suit, was coming down the stairs into the VIP section of the stadium with his wife, Ri Sol Ju.

Rodman was waiting for the leader in the VIP section, where they would watch the game in armchairs together. The Worm, wearing dark sunglasses and a black cap with “USA” on it, his ears, nose, and bottom lip glinting with rings, approached Kim and shook his hand.

The crowd continued to applaud. “The players and audience broke into thunderous cheers, greatly excited to see the game together with Kim Jong Un,” the state news agency reported, adding that Kim “allowed” Rodman to sit next to him.

The teams were picked, playground style, so each contained both Americans and North Koreans. Then it was game on.

As the play progressed, everyone began to loosen up a bit. The Globetrotters did their party tricks, standing on the basket or hanging upside down from it, to hoots and cheers.

At one stage, Mark Barthelemy, a fluent Korean speaker and friend of Mojica’s from their days playing in punk bands in Chicago, pointed his camera at Kim Jong Un. To his shock, the young dictator was staring directly into the lens. Barthelemy looked out from behind his camera, and Kim gave him a little wave. Then Kim nudged his wife, and she waved at Barthelemy too. It was, he told me, a most bizarre moment in a day full of bizarre moments. The dictator was being playful.

In the fourth quarter, though, the game got serious. Kim was talking intently with Rodman, discussing the play-by-play through an interpreter, nodding, gesturing, and looking like a couple of awkward old friends at a Knicks game.

Incredibly, the game ended in a 110–110 tie, with no overtime permitted – an adroit diplomatic result.

Then Rodman stood to give a speech, telling Kim what an honor and privilege it was to be there. Kim sat expressionless. Then, after two intense hours, Kim left the stadium. Everyone exhaled.

But the adventure was far from over. The delegation’s handlers hurried Rodman and his posse out of the stadium, telling them they had an important event on their schedule.

One minder brought the Vice team an invitation on a thick white card, announcing a reception. No details were printed. But the guests were told to dress properly and that they could take nothing to the party: no phones, no cameras, no pens, nothing. It could mean only one thing.

They were driven through the streets of Pyongyang, out past a wooded area, up a road with unnecessary hairpin turns, to a large white building. They went through airport-style security, with metal detectors and wands, and entered a large white-marble room with white table- cloths and white chairs.

Kim Jong Un was waiting to greet everyone personally in a receiving line. It was like a wedding.

Rodman was still wearing his sunglasses and baseball cap, but he had put on his version of a tuxedo: a gray T-shirt with a black suit vest over it. A hot-pink scarf tied around his neck accessorized his pink and white nail polish.

Everyone was smiling broadly as they sat down at the tables, which were decorated with elaborate vegetable sculptures: large flowers carved out of pumpkins, birds crafted from some kind of white vegetable perched upon whole watermelons. Dinner stretched to ten courses, including caviar and sushi. There was wine from France and Tiger beer from Singapore. Coca-Cola, beverage of the imperialist devils, was also served.

Kim started the evening’s proceedings with a toast, clinking small glasses of soju with Rodman. Ri apparently thought better of drinking the firewater. She kept to red wine.

Then Rodman delivered a long and rambling toast, which concluded, “Marshal, your father and your grandfather did some fucked-up shit. But you, you’re trying to make a change, and I love you for that.”

Everyone held their breath. Then Kim Jong Un raised his glass and smiled. Another collective exhale.

There was round upon round of toasts. Mojica, feeling emboldened by the soju, invited Kim Jong Un to make the return journey to New York. He then raised his glass a tumbler of Johnnie Walker Black that the waiters had been filling throughout the night as if it were wine – and took a sip.

All of a sudden, the young dictator was yelling and gesturing at him. For a second, Mojica wondered if he’d committed a grave error. Then the translator kicked in with a “bottoms up!”

“It was a command performance,” Mojica told me. “The evil dictator was demanding that I chug my drink. So I chugged my drink.”

He was woozy, but he still had the mic. He slurred, “If things carry on this way, I’ll be naked by the end of the night.”

Choe Son Hui, the North Korean diplomat who would later become Kim’s chief interlocutor with the United States, was translating for the leader. She had a look of complete disgust on her face, but as the translator, she relayed the remark to Kim Jong Un, who broke out into laughter.

It was party time.

A curtain went up, and on the stage was the Moranbong Band, sometimes called the North Korean Spice Girls. The women, wearing white jackets and skirts that were scandalously short by North Korean standards, hitting above the knee, broke into the theme from Rocky. They had electric guitars and electric violins, a drum set, and a synthesizer.

The soju was working. Kim’s face grew progressively ruddier, and his smile grew broader, revealing the discolored teeth of a heavy smoker. Mojica estimated that the Great Successor had at least a dozen shots of soju. Everyone was, in the Vice producer’s words, “wasted.”

At one point, the Globetrotters were onstage, hand in hand with the Moranbong band members. Later, Rodman had the microphone and was singing “My Way” while Barthelemy played the saxophone, leaning back with his eyes closed like he was channeling Kenny G.

Rodman sent his sidekick over to Mojica to tell him to tone down their raucous behavior. That’s when Mojica realized how out of hand things had become. You know it’s wild when an internationally notorious bad boy is telling you to cool it.

Everything else is hazy. “If I was being my best journalist, I would have stayed sober and committed everything to memory,” said Mojica. “But we all really got caught up in the spirit of the evening.”

After several hours, Kim Jong Un stood to give the final toast. He said that the event had helped to “promote understanding between the peoples of the two countries.”

Footage not broadcast on North Korean television shows Rodman and Kim hugging, the leader patting The Worm on the back, a big smile on his face. He got his Bull.

Excerpted from The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, published on June 11, 2020 by PublicAffairs.

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