Dennis Rodman is returning from his third trip to North Korea, and has been enjoying a special level of hospitality that very few foreigners experience, according to sources in the region, experts, and by his own personal account.
Verifiable information from inside North Korea is notoriously hard to come by, but in and around Pyongyang there exists a vibrant information marketplace existing of diplomats, international journalists, spies, and private businessmen, all trading tales of how child king Kim Jong Un operates and what happens to those who are lucky enough to enter the young leader’s orbit. The current scuttlebutt is that on his last trip there, Rodman partook in more of the fringe benefits offered to VIP visitors than any U.S. official or tourist could imagine.
Some experts and observers believe Rodman’s frequent trips to Pyongang are about more than just setting up a visit of a dozen former NBA players in time for Kim Jong Un’s upcoming birthday.
“As to why Rodman is going, his ‘official’ reason ito (sic) help set up a N. Korean basketball league,” wrote Chris Nelson, Washington’s top insider source on Asia, in a September edition of the private newsletter The Nelson Report. “Sources in the region report that during his visit earlier this year, Kim provided Rodman with what we might characterize as specialized personal entertainments of the female persuasion, and, they argue, that is a special inducement for Rodman this time.”
Contacted by The Daily Beast, Nelson said that he had been told reliably that little Kim had provided Rodman with VIP services above and beyond the normal niceties on his second trip to North Korea, absent the watchful eyes of the Vice magazine crew and staff, which had accompanied him on his first visit.
“The whole notion of providing special entertainment to foreign guests is not a new idea, particularly in Asia,” said Nelson. “We can’t be sure exactly what it was, but whatever it was it must have been quite spectacular.”
Attempts to contact Rodman were unsuccessful, but in an October interview with The Sun, Rodman himself described his 7-day stay at Kim Jong Un’s “Pleasure Island,” a “seven-star” resort packed with alcohol, jet-skis, private yachts, and scores of personal servants.
"It's like going to Hawaii or Ibiza, but he's the only one that lives there," Rodman said. "He likes people to be happy around him. He's got 50 to 60 around him all the time - just normal people, drinking cocktails and laughing the whole time.”
"If you drink a bottle of tequila, it's the best tequila," Rodman added. "Everything you want, he has the best."
Kim’s late father, Dear Leader Kim Jung Il, was notorious for filling such parties featuring celebrity foreigners with troupes of young women, some who provided sex, but others who were more like Japanese geisha, tending to the honored guests’ every whim. More women were often brought in to sing or put on elaborate theatrical performances.
“In the past, Kim Jong Il was known for his late night parties and forcing his subordinates to partake in the womanizing and the drinking. He had pleasure platoons,” said Bruce Klingner, the former CIA deputy division chief dealing with North Korea. “Beautiful women from different villages would be rounded up for various services.”
If Kim Jong Un and Rodman are following in that tradition, that would add an additional level of hypocrisy to the controversy surrounding Rodman’s highly unusual instance of basketball diplomacy. Kim executed his uncle Jang Song Thaek this month after uncle Jang was convicted of a litany of crimes, including womanizing, boozing, conspicuous consumption, and corruption.
“Then there is the reported ready availability of attractive women—the Kim regime apparently maintains special troupes of ‘entertainers; for just such purposes,” Dennis Halpin wrote in The Weekly Standard. “It is unlikely that poor old Uncle Jang, no matter to what degree he was guilty of boozing and womanizing, ever spent a week like the one which Dennis Rodman described.”
By Rodman’s own account, the young leader Kim drinks top shelf booze “all the time.”
One thing is for sure, Rodman’s treatment in North Korea has been levels above what high ranking American government officials or business leaders have experienced. For example, former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and Google CEO Eric Schmidt never got the treatment or access afforded to Rodman during their recent visits. Neither of them even got to meet Kim Jong Un.
“It’s a reflection of how poor U.S.-North Korea relations are that the person who is closest to their leader is a bizarre former basketball player,” said Klingner, who is now a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Victor Cha, the former top Asia advisor in the White House, told The Daily Beast that Rodman’s partying with Kim has negative implications beyond just damaging their own personal reputations.
“Rodman is a very useful prism though which Kim Jong Un can project stability of the regime and a secure grip on power, even though that may not be the case,” said Cha. “Kim Jong Un couldn’t get this sort of western media attention if he just gave a speech. It’s clearly a propaganda victory for him.”
Cha, who has visited Pongyang, said there had long been rumors that the North Korean leaders were involved in providing illicit entertainment for certain high level foreign guests.
“When they receive high level guests, they try to be the best hosts they can,” he said. “We certainly did not get kind of treatment when we were in North Korea.”