The American known as “The Worm” is set to arrive Tuesday in Pyongyang, becoming an unlikely ambassador for sports diplomacy at a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and North Korea.
Rodman, three members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, a VICE correspondent and a production crew from the company are visiting North Korea to shoot footage for a new TV show set to air on HBO in early April, VICE told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview before the group’s departure from Beijing.
It’s the second high-profile American visit this year to North Korea, a country that remains in a state of war with the U.S. It also comes two weeks after North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test in defiance of UN bans against atomic and missile activity.
Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, made a surprise four-day trip to Pyongyang, where he met with officials and toured computer labs, in January, just weeks after North Korea launched a satellite into space on the back of a long-range rocket.
Washington, Tokyo, Seoul and others consider both the rocket launch and the nuclear test provocative acts that threaten regional security.
North Korea characterizes the satellite launch as a peaceful bid to explore space but says the nuclear test was meant as a deliberate warning to Washington. Pyongyang says it needs to build nuclear weapons to defend itself against the U.S. and is thought to be trying to build an atomic bomb small enough to mount on a missile capable of reaching the mainland U.S.
VICE said the Americans hope to engage in a little “basketball diplomacy” in North Korea by running a basketball camp for children and playing pickup games with locals — and by competing alongside North Korea’s top athletes for a game that Rodman said he hopes leader Kim Jong Un will attend.
“Is sending the Harlem Globetrotters and Dennis Rodman to the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] strange? In a word, yes,” said Shane Smith, the VICE founder who is host of the upcoming series. “But finding common ground on the basketball court is a beautiful thing.
“These channels of cultural communication might appear untraditional, and perhaps they are, but we think it’s important just to keep the lines open. And if Washington isn’t going to send their Generals, then we’ll send our Globetrotters.”
The Washington Generals were the Globetrotters’ regular, long-suffering opponents in a long-running series of comic exhibition games.
VICE, known for its sometimes irreverent journalism, has made two previous visits to North Korea, coming out with the “VICE Guide to North Korea.” The HBO series, which will air weekly starting April 5, features documentary-style news reports from around the world.
Along with soccer, basketball is enormously popular in North Korea, where it’s not uncommon to see basketball hoops set up in hotel parking lots or in schoolyards. It’s a game that doesn’t require much equipment or upkeep.