Both North Korea and Dennis Rodman know the pain of ostracization.
When he was a child growing up in a Dallas housing project, Rodman was relentlessly teased by his peers. Because of the way his body moved when he played pinball, he earned the nickname “worm.” It’s stuck with him ever since. He had big ears and definitely wasn’t tall. His father abandoned him and fled to the Philippines. At age 19, all 5-foot-9 of him worked a janitorial job at a Dallas airport.
Then, Rodman rocketed in height and turned into an unlikely basketball sensation. He won three championships with Michael Jordan. But over the course of his career, he also turned into something more than a star athlete. Isolated, misunderstood and profoundly weird, he became the bad boy of the NBA. He donned a wedding dress and married himself, went through women and wives like they were sneakers, and he dyed his hair every color of the rainbow.
Had it not been for his adventures in basketball diplomacy, he might have faded into a drunken obscurity. As detailed in a fantastic Miami New Times profile from May 2013, Rodman has in his post-NBA career become a sad version of his former self. He hangs out with strippers and drinks Estonian vodka by the liter; he goes on three-day binges and does endless pushups in the sauna to sweat out the booze. He’s alienated from ex-wives and his children. No one in his life seems able to reach a man enveloped in depression and alcohol abuse. But all his confidants agree: Somewhere in there is a really very sweet man.
So what is this giant of a man doing serenading North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un on his birthday? After a trip last year to the hermit nation, Rodman declared himself friends for life with Kim. This week, he returned for more of the same: basketball and media fireworks. In what might be loosely described as an “appearance” on CNN, Rodman suffered a meltdown. He may have been drunk, he might not have been. Either way, he implied to Chris Cuomo that Kenneth Bae, an American missionary imprisoned in North Korea, might have gotten what he had coming. Profanities rained down on Cuomo as Rodman explained how he didn’t care much for the CNN host’s opinions about his trip.
But why is Rodman doing this in the first place? As he’s learned over the course of his career, there are many ways to get media publicity — and the paychecks that come with it — but why he’s using North Korea to do it has been something of a mystery.
In Kim, Rodman has found someone with a reputation very similar to his own. Isolated from the world, he is repeatedly ridiculed and denounced for barbarity. Just last week, the world’s media exploded over what turned out to be in all likelihood false allegations that Kim had executed his uncle by setting free 120 starved dogs on him. They reportedly tore him to shreds. The story was just weird enough to pass muster with the world’s blogs and newspapers. It fit the preconceived notions of the country: utterly weird, utterly depraved, utterly fascinating. The same thing could be said of Rodman and his treatment in the media.
Rodman and North Korea have developed a shared strategy for survival: publicity bombs. North Korea threatens to fire missiles at the United States and South Korea, and it detonates nuclear weapons. In return, it generally gains diplomatic concessions. The threats also satisfy a domestic demand to justify a state on a continual war-footing. Rodman uses a similar tactic of outrage to receive his paychecks. By maintaining his media profile as a bad boy beyond repair, the reality shows keep calling. Moreover, the attention fuels the megalomania that has become part and parcel of his depression and, possibly, his alcoholism.
Misery loves company.
Elias Groll is a writer for Foreign Policy.