The man certainly knows how to feed a narrative. Erstwhile basketball great, sometime “Celebrity Apprentice,” and apparent Kim Jong Un buddy Dennis Rodman on Thursday gave North Korean Sports Minister Kim Il Guk a copy of President Trump’s The Art of the Deal—suggesting a negotiated settlement could be had. And in the process, Rodman fed speculation that he had traveled to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as an emissary of the world’s most powerful figure.
Sometimes diplomacy needs a cross-dressing, pierced, tattooed weirdo who has five NBA championship rings and a place in the league’s Hall of Fame.
Such as this moment, when there’s war talk on the Korean peninsula. Beijing, to avoid a calamity, wants to restart negotiations with Pyongyang as do Moscow, Seoul, and Washington. Although all the participants hope to talk, they have not found the means to do so.
Enter a catalyst, Dennis Rodman, whose nickname, The Worm, does not begin to describe how unusual he is.
Or how reprehensible he can be. His four previous trips to North Korea, during which he repeatedly praised despot Kim Jong Un and sang “Happy Birthday” to him, were notorious. If Americans could be jailed for partying with young dictators, Rodman would be serving consecutive life terms.
Rodman entered North Korea on Tuesday, and now the narrative, for good cause, is different. As The Washington Post asked in a headline that day, “Was He Sent by Trump?”
The suggestion is by no means outrageous. After all, The Worm is the only person in the world who can call both President Donald John Trump and Supreme Commander Kim Jong Un a friend. No American has had more contact with the Kimster, who is even more unavailable to world leaders than his reclusive father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il.
And Rodman on his way to Pyongyang talked like an envoy. At the Beijing Capital Airport on Tuesday, asked whether Trump knew about the trip, the Hall of Famer told reporters “I’m pretty sure he’s happy at the fact I’m over here trying to accomplish something we both need.”
“I will discuss my mission upon my return to the U.S.A.,” Rodman said. He also mentioned he was attempting to accomplish something “pretty positive.”
And what would that be? Rodman announced he was “just trying to open a door.” That was uncharacteristically modest, and he was in fact thinking of grander goals. As The Worm said in a video posted on the site of PotCoin, which sponsored his trip, “It’s all about peace.”
Trump administration officials have repeatedly stated Rodman’s trip had no official sanction, and the denials sounded genuine. Despite everything, Washington would never authorize anyone so unpredictable and unconventional.
Rodman’s journey nonetheless has significance and presents his friend, The Donald, with an opportunity. Although it is far too early to begin talks with Kim, that ship looks like it has already sailed.
How so? South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, is determined to support his fellow Korean, Kim Jong Un, and to do that he has already started a dialogue.
Moon’s policies undercut the American approach of denying Kim the resources for his nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, but Moon does not care. As he said after his May 10 inauguration, South Korea will pursue its own North Korea policy independent of foreign countries.
Trump and Moon meet in Washington at the end of this month, and the American leader will undoubtedly try to convince the South Korean to hold off his outreach to the North and follow Washington’s lead on sanctions. If the effort is unsuccessful—a likely bet given Moon’s desire to help the North Korean regime—Trump will have no good options.
Among atrocious choices, perhaps Trump’s best option will be to preempt his South Korean counterpart by starting negotiations with Pyongyang. Should he decide to do that, Trump might take advantage of the opening provided by Rodman. The general strategy for Washington would be to control initial discussions about when to begin those talks and how they should proceed.
The alternative to taking advantage of this opportunity is to allow Moon, a leftist, to undermine American policy in ways that could lead to the end of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. During the campaign, Moon made statements that were inconsistent with the maintenance of the treaty relationship. And since then, the South Korean has undermined the alliance by moving against the American-built Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.
The U.S., with a patient policy, maintained the treaty for 10 years while South Korea was governed by “progressives,” Kim Dae Jung and Moon’s mentor, Roh Moo-hyun.
Many Americans think Washington can outlast Moon this time as well. Yet the situation then—1998 to 2008—and now is different. Then, North Korea had detonated only one nuclear device and had conducted only a few ballistic missile tests.
Today, the North has exploded its fifth nuke—two of them last year alone—and is making fast progress on missiles. In, say, three years, it will be able to mount a nuclear device on a missile that can reach the lower 48 states. If Washington decides it cannot be sure it can deter Kim Jong Un—his regime looks increasingly unstable with all the demotions, purges, and executions—then Washington cannot wait out Moon.
Trump has one other option: the use of force to disarm Rodman’s other good friend.
Up to now, the possibility that North Korea would destroy Seoul has inhibited American military action against the Kim regime. Although it’s unlikely Kim Jong Un would start Armageddon after surgical U.S. strikes on his missile and nuke sites, no American president has been willing to take the risk.
The South Korean capital and its metropolitan area, a megalopolis of 26 million, is only about 35 miles from the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas. On the other side of that zone, the world’s fourth-largest military is forward deployed.
The casualties in the first hours of a general conflict on the Korean peninsula could number in the hundreds of thousands.
None of this is to say that Trump, if he takes advantage of the opening Rodman has created, would be able to control negotiations. In addition to all the other obstacles, the fragile condition of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old student who was airlifted out of North Korea on Tuesday, will poison the atmosphere between Washington and Pyongyang.
Nonetheless, Dennis Rodman, whether unofficial envoy or truly private citizen, gives Trump one more option to avoid the worst outcomes.
So perhaps we should give Worm Diplomacy a chance.