By Michael E. Miller
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But then came yet another reinvention of Dennis Rodman.
Vice Media, a Brooklyn-based company that publishes the magazine Vice, wanted to fly Michael Jordan to North Korea to promote what it called "basketball diplomacy." (Kim Jong Un's mercurial father, Kim Jong Il, was a big NBA fan during his days at the nation's helm. According to a 2006 San Diego Union-Tribune exposé, the elder Kim, like many Americans, wanted to be like Mike. The five-foot-three dictator built NBA-regulation-size courts in every palace, plopped a Michael Jordan-signed basketball in a glass case at his Museum of International Understanding, and invited His Airness to Pyongyang in the mid-1990s. He declined.)
And he did this time too. So Shane Smith, cofounder of Vice Media, called Rodman. The plan was apparently to send Rodman and three Harlem Globetrotters to Pyongyang, where the newly minted dictator would, perhaps, open up.
Rodman didn't speak with New Times about his North Korea visit beyond calling himself a "peacemaker." But his best buddy, Floyd Raglin, remembers all the details. Raglin first met Rodman 30 years ago and is considered the one in the entourage who knows him best. Before Rodman left for North Korea, he called Raglin, a blue-eyed and powerfully built former Miami Dolphin. "He had no idea who Kim Jong Un was," Raglin recalls. "He just thought he was going to play basketball with the Globetrotters."
The last week in February, Rodman boarded a plane cluttered with luggage, dozens of North Koreans, and the Globetrotters. Twenty-four hours later, wearing cobalt-blue sweatpants and a Polo Ralph Lauren hat, he landed at the Pyongyang airport. "It's my first time, and I think it's most of these guys' first time here," Rodman told the Associated Press amid a bedlam of flashing cameras and giggling North Korean dignitaries. "So hopefully everything's going to be OK."
While staying at the Koryo Hotel — the nicest accommodations in Pyongyang — he called Gigi Peterson. "He said he'd chosen not to play basketball, period," she says. "So when he went back to his room, he went to sleep. Then, in the middle of the night, he got a knock at the door, and when he answered it, there were guards, and they were armed. His first thought was, Oh, fuck. I'm going to be arrested for not playing! But he was only being summoned to see little Kim."
The next day, Rodman donned black clothes and a dark pair of shades. As the Globetrotters played, he eased into a red-cushioned chair beside one of the world's most mysterious leaders in one of its most totalitarian countries. As the audience cheered, the two men made friends.
The state-controlled Korean Central News Agency reported the scene thusly: "Rodman said with excitement that he found his impressive Pyongyang visit quite satisfactory. He added that Korean people are his friends and, in particular, he considers Marshal Kim Jong Un a close friend."
The afterparty unfurled that night inside a white banquet hall, where Rodman, wearing a pink tie, joked with Kim Jong Un through an interpreter as if they were bowling buddies. Rodman guzzled expensive booze as if it were Gatorade. At one point during the meal, he bent way down and hugged the autocrat.
When Rodman left the reclusive nation soon after that dinner, he had no idea what awaited him.
"When you said you loved Kim and think he's awesome, were [you] aware of his threats on the United States and his regime's horrendous record on human rights?" newscaster George Stephanopoulos asked.
It was the morning of March 3, the Sunday after Rodman had returned, and in the bright lights of the ABC studio in New York City, the athlete turned wan. ("He was blitzed — absolutely fucking blitzed," says AJ Bright, one of Rodman's advisers. "We wondered whether we should cancel, but decided to let him go on. He had no business being on a political show.")
Wearing a lavender scarf and a blazer printed with dollar signs, Rodman pressed his hands together. "He doesn't want war," Rodman sputtered.
"He said he wants to destroy the United States," Stephanopoulos pressed, expression severe.
"He loves power," Rodman explained. "He loves control because of his, uh, you know, his dad. But he's a great guy. Just a great guy."
"A great guy who puts 200,000 people in prison camps?"
"Guess what, we have presidents who do the same thing, right," Rodman parried. "It's amazing how Bill Clinton can have sex with his secretary and do one thing and still be powerful."
"How can you compare that to prison camps?"
"Prison camps do one thing," Rodman replied quickly. "We don't need to do one thing. We do one thing. Kim's a friend to me. I'm going to go back and do one thing: find out more about what's really going on."
"Next time you go back, you should bring this report from Human Rights Watch" about North Korea, Stephanopoulos said, pushing paper at Rodman. "Ask some questions about that. You might learn a lot more."
Rodman laughed. "Either way, do one thing: Don't hate me. Don't hate me."
That day, Rodman's schedule had been booked with national interviews, Bright said. They were all canceled.