US basketball star Dennis Rodman recently hung out with North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un - now he's tweeted a request that the American sentenced to 15 years' hard labor be released.
“Guess what? I love him,” he told reporters. “He’s really awesome.”
But now the basketball diplomat is testing his friendship with the young Kim by asking the leader to release an American sentenced last week to 15 years of hard labor for “hostile acts” against the North Korean regime.
The missive came in response to a Seattle Times opinion piece last week, in which writer Thanh Tan called on Rodman to put his goodwill with Pyongyang on the line for Mr. Bae, a tour operator arrested in November on murky charges.
Perhaps now is the time for the NBA has-been to practice some real basketball diplomacy and call up his so-called friend for a favor: Grant American detainee Kenneth Bae amnesty and release him to his family….
Bae is being used as a political pawn by a desperate despot who happened to gallivant around the country with Rodman in March. Perhaps now is the retired player’s chance to use his notoriety for something other than to over-inflate his ego.
Rodman apparently got the message.
And while Twitter is an admittedly feeble platform for diplomacy, it’s not out of the question that Kim will see the tweet. After all, the North Korean government has an active – if bizarre – Twitter presence itself, putting out an erratic blast of messages about American imperialism and the “victory and glory” of the Kim regime.
But even if Kim gets Rodman’s message, will he understand it? After all, “do me a solid” isn’t exactly a phrase that translates easily.
Washington Post blogger Max Fisher writes that the closest Korean equivalent of the colloquialism would be the somewhat menacing (at least to American ears) phrase, “Look at my face and release Kenneth Bae.”
“Look at my face,” he writes, “is a Korean expression that’s like a special, for-friends-only version of ‘do me a favor.’”
Whether Kim will look at Rodman’s face – double nose ring and all – remains to be seen, but Americans favored by North Korea have helped coax the regime to release American prisoners in the past.
In 2009, for instance, former President Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang and shortly after the visit then-Dear Leader Kim Jong-il pardoned two American journalists who were being held in the country. In total, six Americans – including Bae – have been held by the North Korean government since 2009, the Monitor reported. The other five were all released.
Rodman’s February visit to North Korea – along with the friendship tour of Google Chairman Eric Schmidt in January – was initially hailed by some Western observers as a sign that the young Kim might be more interested in opening his country to the rest of the world than his father and grandfather had been.
However, analysts say there have been no fundamental changes to the regime’s posture since then. If anything, interaction with Western celebrities puts the regime in a more powerful position because it can claim new geopolitical cache.
“Ultimately, they [North Korea] come out ahead because they can portray it as the world coming to pay tribute, or at least to be there,” Aidan Foster-Carter, a Korean expert, told the Monitor in March.
Indeed, as the state-run Korean Central News Agency (as well as Western outlets) reported during Rodman’s trip, the basketball player was an enthusiastic tourist, visiting a greatest hits list of Kim-related sites.
Rodman and his cohort "paid high tribute to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il before their statues. They entered the halls where Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il lie in state and paid homage to them,” a press release announced. “They made an entry in the visitor's book.”