Retired U.S. basketball star Dennis Rodman shakes hands with officials upon his arrival at Pyongyang airport on Dec. 19. Photo by Kyodo/Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has a problem.
Seems he’s been taking a lot of heat lately for having Jang Song Thaek, his uncle and mentor, arrested, publicly humiliated in front of the country’s ruling elite, called out as a traitor, put on trial and executed - all with the lightening speed of an NBA All-Star fast-break. Suddenly, Kim’s carefully cultivated image of a youthful, vibrant Swiss-educated 21st leader took a beating. To make matters worse, Kim’s birthday is coming up in a couple of weeks.
How could the young tyrant rebound from the bad PR?
Enter friend Dennis Rodman, an ex-NBA defensive specialist, who these days specializes in helping to whitewash the brutal reality of the world’s most repressive regime.
When he landed at Pyongyang International Airport on December 21st, Rodman wasted no time in redirecting the media’s narrative. He confirmed that he was going to train North Korean basketball players for next month’s exhibition game with 12 as-of-yet unnamed former NBA players. The game will be played on Kim Jong Un’s birthday, January 8. Rodman said to the Associated Press that if after the 12 former NBA players go home they say, "some really, really nice things, some really cool things about this country," then he has done his job.
"North Korea has given me the opportunity to bring these players and their families over here, so people can actually see, so these players can actually see, that this country is actually not as bad as people project it to be in the media," Rodman added.
So here is a quick primer on the North Korea that Dennis Rodman and company will never see:
For decades, North Korea has been the world's most controlled society and its regime among the most repressive. Taking a page from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, Pyongyang maintains a Gulag -- a series of punitive forced labor camps. There, as many as 200,000 "enemies of the state" languish, accused of criminal activity or merely of having the wrong neighbor or parent. Inmates have virtually no rights, no knowledge of the outside world, and little hope of getting out. Nuclear families are difficult to maintain and some of the few escapees describe a system
where the jailers choose which inmates can co-habitate and when or if they can have children who then also live in captivity.
There are also chilling parallels to Nazi Germany. As associate dean of an institution bearing the name of Simon Wiesenthal, an NGO devoted to imparting the lessons of the Holocaust, I was so shocked by reports that innocent people were being murdered in gas chambers anywhere in the world, on our watch, that I traveled to Seoul to personally debrief three North Korean defectors who reportedly admitted involvement in such activities.
The oldest of the three was more interested in touting his skills in forging nearly undetectable $100 U.S. bills. When I pressed him on the human guinea pigs killed in gas chambers, he showed zero remorse, and shrugged, matter-of-factly "…those (political) prisoners were as good as dead anyway."
I will never forget the anguish of a second defector who years after the fact broke down describing how he supervised the slow killing of parents and their child in a glass-encased chamber. Shocking details of how long the agony went on and the efforts of the doomed parents to breathe air into the lungs of their dying child were duly written down and forwarded for analysis to those in charge of the production and upgrade of North Korean poison gasses. (Some of these gasses constituted Bashar Assad's arsenal which originally threatened Israel, but were ultimately deployed against his own civilian population). The youngest defector carefully described his team’s involvement in experiments carried out on live specimens - animal and human.
Against this background of hidden horrors and public executions, it is no surprise that Kim Jong Un, like his tyrannical father and grandfather before him, takes great pains to shape and control the image projected at home and abroad.
It is interesting to note the many photos of Kim Jong-un in the company of children that have appeared in the tightly controlled State media. They are eerily reminiscent of Hitler's carefully nurtured public image in the 1930s.
And North Korea’s old guard, including now deceased Uncle Jang, may have missed an ominous hint of things to come, when the official newspaper, Rodong Shinmun, published photos of Kim scolding senior officials, all of them old.
On his last birthday, Kim Jong Un reportedly gave out copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf . Other sources asserted that Kim was heard saying that North Korea's Ministry of Public Security should be a force even stronger than the Korean People's Army, "similar to the Gestapo."
Whether he uttered those exact words or not, no one should be fooled by the contrived Kodak moments Dennis Rodman provides for his friend Kim Jong Un. The missile-rattling, nuclear-armed novice in Pyongyang-- with friends in high places in Tehran and Syria-- should make any rational person in South Korea, Japan, China, the U.S., and Israel, very, very worried.
And Dennis Rodman must open his eyes.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Vice Chair of the North Korean Freedom Coalition and member of the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.