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You have probably already heard that about a month ago former Massachusetts senator John Kerry took office in President Obama’s cabinet, beginning his service as U.S. Secretary of State. Since assuming office, Kerry has been the second most important figure in international diplomacy, touring America’s European and Middle Eastern allies. Of course, the most important figure has been two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Dennis Rodman who established a dialogue with one of America’s most withdrawn and mysterious enemies.
After visiting his new “friend,” Kim Jong-un, in the capital city of Pyongyang, Rodman seemed relatively nonchalant when told of North Korea’s grim history of human rights violations. He said, “I’m not apologizing for him. You know, he’s a good guy to me. Guess what? He’s my friend. I don’t condone what he does … But he’s my friend.” Rodman, who has a checkered past including several drunk-driving arrests and the battery of actress Carmen Electra, seems to have enjoyed more intimate and candid access to the totalitarian dictator than any other American, though the official channels of U.S. diplomacy have disavowed the meeting. North Korea’s recent and controversial test of nuclear arms appears not to have been discussed.
Now, at first glance this incident seems relatively unimportant, if embarrassing for Kerry and the Department of State. For a dynasty that has starved and murdered who-knows-how-many of its own citizens, the Kims of North Korea aren’t quite seen in the light they should be. In the eyes of the common man, the Kims seem to be too nerdy to pose any kind of real threat, and the escapades of the regime are risibly antiquated. After the Soviet Union’s fall and communist China’s implementation of a new economic strategy (capitalism), North Korea seems to be the pathetic last vestige of old communism. It can be hard for us to take any news item with North Korea in the headline seriously because this is a nation in which official maps include South Korea in the Pacific Ocean.
But they are not an object of ridicule for their own people.
Living under the thumb of dictatorship was no fun in the twentieth century, nor is it now, and there are serious consequences for North Korea’s archaic despotism. For this unlikely reason, I think Rodman’s visit may be a step in the right direction, because it signals to me that the 28-year-old Kim may be willing to bring his dictatorship into the modern world. Tyrants in the twenty-first century freely mix with Western influences, pop-culture, the internet and other realities of the modern world.
The point is that North Korea will continue to be oppressive until the developed world starts taking them seriously. The old tropes of communism were very threatening to our parents and grandparents, and they voted seriously with them in mind. As the old tropes of communism are to us laughable, the plight of North Korea is easily forgotten.
Think, though, of the dictators we do respect: Assad, Gadhafi and Hussein. They are significant figures in the recent history of the United States and direct the votes of foreign policy voters. Each one allowed himself a certain association with Western culture. Bashar al Assad listens to LMFAO and Chris Brown. Saddam Hussein decorated palaces with scenes of semi-erotic fantasy warfare, including fire-breathing dragons, orcs and busty blondes. Moammar Gadhafi paid a fortune for private performances from pop icons Beyonce and Mariah Carey.
I believe that their participation in our world prompted us to make more serious opposition of them. As much as their tastes may have been ridicule-worthy in their own way, they at least precluded Westerners from viewing their regimes with the detached, historical perspective in which we sometimes view North Korea. This is why I am one of the few voices applauding Rodman’s visit. Kim Jong-un’s association with a man who epitomizes the West, though deemed scandalous by many, may do some small good. It’s a small, yet not insignificant, step toward pulling North Korea further into this century, something that may be exactly what they need in order to begin to crumble.
Ben Moss always wanted to be a basketball playing, hair-dye-happy, tattoo-covered foreign diplomat when he grew up.