In the Echo Chamber: Rodman's Return

By Tanya Silverman

Photo courtesy of OPEN Sports.

After Dennis Rodman’s most recent journey to North Korea, the former NBA athlete revealed the name of North Korean leader Kim Jung-un’s baby daughter to The Guardian: Kim Ju-ae.

Regarding his second trip to this often inaccessible Asian country, Rodman told this British newspaper: “The Marshal Kim and I had a relaxing time by the sea… I held their baby Ju-ae and spoke with Ms Ri [Sol-Ju, Kim’s wife] as well. He’s a good dad and has a beautiful family. Kim told me, ‘I’ll see you in December.'”

The post became second most-read World News article on its website during the afternoon of September 9th (after “John Kerry gives Syria week to hand over chemical weapons or face attack”). One factor for its high ranking may be due to the fact that these words have echoed through countless other news sources that link to The Guardian’s piece. USA Today, The Telegraph, ABC News and countless others repeated, reiterated, and reinterpreted these revealing bits of gossip about the North Korean leader and his secretive family life.

Another reason that Dennis Rodman’s announcements to The Guardian went viral was due to the fact that so little was known about Kim Jung-un’s offspring. Prior to Rodman mentioning anything, there was only mere speculation and unsubstantiated rumors that the leader’s wife had even been pregnant. Journalists had studied photos of Ri Sol-ju, where she appeared to be hiding a belly bump underneath a long coat, followed by thinner photos of her released a few months afterwards.

The New York Post also picked up on the story of Kim Jung-un’s newly determined fatherhood, and made sure to further describe him as a “monstrous dictator” and “pudgy crackpot leader,” along with titling Dennis Rodman as his “BFF”.

The New York Daily News incorporated the very same Guardian lines about Kim Jung-un’s family life, along with using “BFF” to describe his relationship with Rodman, who they referred to as “The Worm”, his old nickname during the NBA days.

While the original Guardian article did not bring it up, many other sources that allude to this particular interview also reference the fact that while Rodman had been welcomed into North Korea, he did not pursue the case of Kenneth Bae. Bae is an American political prisoner who has been detained in North Korea since last year, and is currently serving a fifteen-year sentence at a labor camp where his health is said to be deteriorating.

Before even referencing the Kim Jun-un’s child or quoting the Guardian interview, CNN began its article, titled “Dennis Rodman tells of Korea basketball event, may have leaked Kim child’s name”, with the fact that this “eccentric former basketball star” had failed to bring “imprisoned American Kenneth Bae back with him from North Korea.”

In their online article, CNN embeded a video that features a segment of raw-looking press footage where Rodman makes a grand entrance into the Beijing airport after his visit to North Korea, accessorized with a sparkly hat, facial piercings and a thick cigar.

As he walks on, eager video journalists surround and enclose him with their cameras and microphones. A CNN reporter pushes on through this crowd to inquire if Rodman had brought up Kenneth Bae. Rodman immediately responds with, “That’s not my job to ask about Kenneth Bae,” – soon after, he tells the reporters to ask Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton about that issue, before loudly referring to these politicians as “assholes.”

The New York Times referenced these quotes from this Beijing airport episode: its brief, yet sophisticated-sounding, write-up touches on Rodman’s crass temper by saying that he communicated with an “expletive-laced tirade” after his trip to a country with a “record of egregious human rights abuses.”

But CNN, which had been actively pursuing the Kenneth Bae story closely even prior to Rodman’s visit, follows up their clips of the Beijing airport scene with a direct interview with Bae’s sister, who announces she was disappointed that Rodman’s friendship did not “benefit Kenneth”.

Regardless of what Kenneth Bae’s sister really thinks about Dennis Rodman — or even if members of the press or public take this eccentric celebrity’s persona or actions seriously — it is intriguing that this former NBA star has been closer with Kim Jung-un than any other American.

Perhaps people do not want Rodman to be considered a diplomat who is in the position to negotiate the release of political prisoners, or be the first figure who is credited with finding out this mysterious leader’s baby daughter’s existence or name (let alone hold her in his tattooed arms).

As ridiculous, unconventional or controversial as some may see it, Rodman’s visits have amounted to a degree of access to the North Korea and it’s leadership that has previously been unseen, and his respective stories and gestures about his travels have been followed closely and analyzed by many media sources.

Looking forward to December, Dennis Rodman has plans to return to North Korea for a third trip, calling for further “basketball diplomacy.” This outspoken athlete is certainly not a traditional ambassador, and very likely not a particularly passionate human-rights advocate. Nevertheless, Rodman has formulated an unexpected personal position to communicate with this incredibly insular country, for whatever his motives may be and however its complex consequences may play out in the world.