The announcement that Kim Jong-un has invited Donald Trump for a personal meeting and denuclearisation is now a mutual goal, has caught many by surprise. This is after all the same Kim Jong-in who in an official statement called Trump a “mentally deranged dotard” who would be tamed “with fire”, while Trump called Kim “little rocket man” and promised to “destroy” his nation in front of the UN. These are just two of the most infamous of many insults which have flung back and forth. However, now Kim has extended an invitation to Trump, along with a set of pre-conditions that seemingly gives the US everything it wants. Just who helped bring this about?
Not only is Dennis Rodman an unlikely diplomat, but the former NBA star never even attempted to be a diplomat. He nevertheless played a vital role in the apparent DPRK-US detente that is being woefully underestimated.
For all the things Dennis Rodman is, one of those things is being the only man on earth who can say he has had personal friendships with both Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. He and Trump got to know each other after Rodman’s time on Trump’s television show Celebrity Apprentice, while Dennis got to know Kim after the former organised exhibition basketball matches in Pyongyang. Since their first meeting, Rodman has flown to Pyongyang several times to visit Kim on a personal basis. Rodman spoke of the two engaging in activities that included skying, horse riding, karaoke and the kind of things that any high profile international friends would be expected to do.
While Rodman insists he never talked geopolitics with Kim, he has been quoted by the US press on many occasions saying that Donald Trump should pick up the phone and talk with Kim because Kim is willing to have a conversation. Rodman said the same about Barack Obama, who like Kim, shared a love of basketball, but that conversation never happened. With Trump however, it is set to happen and Dennis Rodman’s friendship with Kim certainly had something to do with creating an atmosphere of trust.
During a 2017 trip to visit Kim in Pyongyang, Rodman handed Kim a copy of Donald Trump’s best selling book “The Art of The Deal” and today Rodman has praised Trump saying,
“Well done, President Trump. You’re on the way to a historical meeting no U.S. president has ever done. Please send my regards to Marshal Kim Jong Un and his family”.
When it comes to sending special envoys to left-leaning countries in order to secure an American demand, former President Jimmy Carter (who first visited Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang in 1994) or civil rights activist and former Presidential candidate Jesse Jackson have typically been the go-to individuals, but when it comes to Kim Jong-un, a man who has neither meet Vladimir Putin nor Xi Jinping, it was an American celebrity who shared a love of sport with Kim who was able to break the DPRK-US ice in ways that still aren’t being fully grasped.
— Dennis Rodman (@dennisrodman) March 9, 2018
Moon Jae-in would have likely won the 2012 South Korean Presidential election had it not been admittedly tampered with by the South Korean intelligence services. When the victor in 2012, Park Geun-hye was finally impeached for charges relating to corruption in March of 2017, Moon finally got his chance to take charge, winning a special Presidential election in May of 2017.
While Park Geun-hye was a clear war monger in the spirit of er right-wing dictator father Park Chung-hee, Moon Jae-in campaigned on a platform of peace and moderation. While many felt that Moon would never be able to thaw the ice during a time when the US was threatening and sanctioning North Korea with worrying vigour, Moon remained receptive and encouraging to any prospect for peace throughout the early months of his presidency.
In the autumn of 2017, Moon attended the Eastern Economic Forum in the Russian city of Vladivostok where he endorsed Vladimir Putin’s tripartite economic cooperation initiative between Russia and the two Korean states. At the time, the DPRK’s delegation also welcomed Putin’s proposals, but stated it would need further security assurances before committing to them in full.
Moon has also seen Seoul’s relations with China reach historic highs in terms of cooperation on both trade and security. Moon’s administration reached an agreement with China in October of 2017 aimed at the long term reductions of US made THAAD missiles on Korean soil. While the details of this agreement have never been made public, it was clear that Beijing felt it satisfactory enough to invite Moon to China and in December of 2017 Moon held high level meetings with President Xi Jinping regarding expanding trade, at a time when Seoul has grown angry with Washington’s increasingly protectionist policies.
However, it was prior to the 2018 Winter Olympics when Moon happily received Kim Jong-un’s offer to resume long frozen dialogue that it became clear beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Moon Jae-in is not only serious about peace and moderation, but that he was willing to open his country to DPRK officials in order to achieve it. While this year’s Olympics was marred by the banning of the Russian flag, the presence of a Korean Unity flag, under which athletes from both Korean states marched, was a clear move for peace that secured trust between members of Kim and Moon’s governments. Subsequently, a special delegation from Moon’s administration travelled to Pyongyang this week, resulting in the ‘surprise’ announcement that Kim intends to meet with Trump sometime in the next month and a half.
Had Park Geun-hye remained in office, it is virtually certain that none of this would have happened. Moon Jae-in deserves his substantial share of credit for creating the conditions for reconciliation on the Korean peninsula.
Kim Jong-un remains a much maligned and misunderstood leader throughout the world, but especially in the west. In reality, Kim Jong-un has overseen an economic boom in the DPRK which has resulted in new infrastructure projects, new technological initiatives, a building boom and an overall economy which continues to grow in spite of sanctions.
Furthermore, Kim’s government has always stated that once it reaches nuclear parity with the United States, it would be willing to discuss peace proposals. From North Korea’s perspective, nuclear parity means that the DPRK will have the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon to US soil with an ICBM. After last’s years successful test of the Hwasong-15, most experts agree that this is now the reality.
It was only after the successful achievement of nuclear parity, that Kim Jong-un reached out to Seoul in his 2018 New Year’s message. Far from being a shock, this was the beginning of the DPRK doing what it said it would do – negotiate from a position of strength, rather than weakness.
Now, Pyongyang is willing to speak with the US and surely with others as well, about attaining the long standing Sino-Russian goal of denuclearising both sides of the Korean peninsula. In this sense, Russia’s intense diplomatic conversations with the Kim government have surely helped to give Pyongyang the long term security guarantees that it has sought. While Russia retains better relations with the DPRK than China, Beijing has remained steadfastly committed to Moscow’s goal of a double-freeze regarding weapons tests, wepons deliveries to and military drills on both sides of the 38th parallel.
Kim Jong-un has stood firm against US threats throughout Donald Trump’s period in office. He never flinched once and is now magnanimously extending an olive branch first to Seoul and Washington. Kim continues to look like a master diplomat who has managed to look tough, competent and diplomatically able.
Donald Trump has used some of the most undiplomatic rhetoric in geopolitics to lambaste and threaten North Korea. This included numerous insults directed to Kim Jong-un personally. However, this is the same Trump who in May of 2017 stated that it would be an “honour” to meet Kim if the conditions were right.
In this sense, Trump is actually far more unpredictable than Kim. Kim had said he would complete his nuclear weapons programme and at such a point, would then be open to international discussions. This has happened. Trump however, while taking a ‘hard line’ on the DPRK has sporadically referenced his desire to develop a personal relationship with Kim.
Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me "old," when I would NEVER call him "short and fat?" Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend – and maybe someday that will happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2017
Oddly, there’s something about Trump’s ‘in your face’ personality that makes one think that on a personal level, he may actually develop friendly relations with Kim. In this sense, there’s something of a flamboyant Dennis Rodman like attitude about Donald Trump that may remind Kim of his equally outspoken and occasionally foul mouthed American basket ball playing friend.
One cannot underestimate the behind-the-scenes diplomacy of Russia and China working with both Korean states to secure this recent development, but no matter how hard one works behind the scenes, this kind of rapprochement must have an organic element to it in order for it to work. From Dennis Rodman’s ‘hoops diplomacy’, to Moon Jae-in’s inclination for peace and reconciliation, to Kim Jong-un’s diplomatic tact combined with steadfast brinkmanship and finally Donanld Trump’s personal desire to meet a man that few world leaders have met, the personalities involved have done more to make this happen than decades of prior attempts at traditional diplomacy. All deserve their own share of the credit.