Visiting North Korea: Are These the Cracks We Need to Help Us Chisel Away at Evil?


As the leader of his repressive police state, Kim Jong Un is directly and indirectly responsible for horrific human rights violations committed against the North Korean people. Few people would argue with the assertion that the young dictator is a decidedly bad man who does unambiguously bad things. But few people would do lots of things that Dennis Rodman has done in the distant past or this week, including referring to Kim Jong Un as a friend and "very good guy" or implying in an interview that an innocent American detainee in Korea might actually deserve his fate.

I'm not going to pretend to understand enough about international politics and diplomacy to have all the answers to the complex debate surrounding the question of whether or not is unethical to visit North Korea. I wish that Dennis Rodman handled his influence in a more reasonable, empathetic way, and I understand why Kenneth Bae's family is so outraged at the situation. 

But regardless of the intentions and ramifications of Rodman's comments and actions in this individual case, I wonder if, over time, visits like these slowly  change North Korea's public perception towards America in a positive direction. What if these kinds of interactions -- whether or not they involve celebrities like Rodman and especially if they involve some average North Korean people -- may be the best way to gradually instill doubt in the legitimacy of the state's propaganda machine and Kim Jong Un's regime?

I first wondered this after I watched Vice's documentary on their trip to North Korea with Dennis Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters for a goodwill game of basketball.  From the start, this trip wasn't just a zany vacation or even a ambassadorial adventure: Vice cleverly leveraged Kim Jong Un's love of basketball and Rodman to create this rare opportunity for American journalists to go inside North Korea and film the country under the rule of their new, young leader. (Vice has been to North Korea before and filmed documentaries that firmly criticize the regime -- but those are other stories for another time, and you can watch one of them here.)

The documentary with the Harlem Globetrotters climaxes with an exhibition game between the North Korean and American players. Afterwards, all the players and journalists attend a party with heads of state where Kim Jong Un expressed the hope that "sports exchanges of this kind would be encouraged to promote understanding between the peoples of the two countries." Vice correspondent Ryan Duffy explains how bizarrely hopeful all of this is:

"So you've got the average North Korean, people who are taught from birth that America is this evil, empirical power hell-bent on their destruction waking up the next to see their dear leader, aka God, hanging out with a bunch of Americans, saying that he hopes that we can all get along.

"Now of course it's possible that's just more propaganda. But we did start to think that maybe, just maybe, we may have had at least some impact.

"We realize that bringing a crew of basketball players to North Korea isn't going to lead to the country dismantling its nuclear program, shutting down its labor camps, or even toning down its anti-American rhetoric. But during our time there, we did accomplish something."

If you watch to the end of the documentary, you will see the Harlem Globetrotters stop at a public park and play basketball with a bunch of real North Korean children and their parents. You can see the wonder and happiness in their faces as they play alongside each other and learn together. For a moment, there is shared understanding and delight passing between two groups of very different people -- people who are supposed to be enemies. For a moment, we are friends.

"It was great. It was amazing. One little kid just said,'Welcome to our country!'"

Maybe I'm being too idealistic, but maybe, just maybe, a few more of these positive interactions are the cracks we need to help us chisel away at evil.

photo credit: leef_smith via photopin cc