Will Dennis Rodman’s visit to North Korea help improve relations between the isolated authoritarian state and the outside world? It seems improbable, not just because of his limited reputation as a statesman. The former NBA star appeared uncertain just which Korea he was going to ahead of the trip, and after watching a basketball game and partying with Kim Jong Un, he declared his friendship for North Korea’s young dictator, telling the Associated Press: “This guy is really awesome.”
Nearly two decades ago another American star traveled to North Korea for a sporting spectacular billed as a chance for a breakthrough with the Hermit Kingdom. Muhammad Ali, the former world heavyweight champion, Olympic gold medalist, convert to Islam, Vietnam War opponent, Atlanta Olympic Games torch lighter and generally the most recognized sportsman of the 20th century, joined a group of professional wrestlers and thousands of foreign tourist for an event known as the International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace in Pyongyang.
Rodman is of course but a june bug to the cultural juggernaut of Muhammad Ali. Ali is, after all, known as the Greatest; Rodman’s nickname is the Worm. But there are startling parallels to the visits 18 years apart that show how little North Korea has changed and how little we can expect as a result of this trip. Both events followed shortly after the demise of a North Korean strongman. The 1995 sports festival was held less than a year after North Korea’s founding President Kim Il Sung died. His son Kim Jong Il was trying to consolidate his grip on power. Rodman’s trip came a little over a year after the December 2011 death of Kim Jong Il. His youngest son and successor Kim Jong Un, 30, is likewise trying to show that he firmly controls the levers of power in Pyongyang.
Both events centered on a spectacle of sports-based entertainment. The 1995 festival was capped by “Collision in Korea,” a pro-wrestling event organized by Antonio Inoki, a Japanese wrestler, wrestling promoter and politician, who was pitted in the marquee match against American wrestler Ric Flair. It would seem comical, except a large number of the foreigners in the audience had come not to watch two aging grapplers fake punches in the center ring, but to be reunited with family members from whom they’d been forcibly separated for decades. Author Orville Schell described the bizarre display in an article for Harper’s magazine:
The festival was truly one of the oddest events in this country’s strange history of contact with the outside world. Although the government had hoped to lure Western tourists to Pyongyang, most of those who showed up were overseas Koreans yearning to see long-lost relatives. Their fervent requests for visits were callously refused, however, and instead of enjoying family reunions, they found themselves prisoners at a pro-wrestling extravaganza. No one had a good answer for why the government had spent millions of scarce dollars on a festival that ended up alienating the very guests it hoped to impress. As a British friend who had spent a year in Pyongyang put it, “But then there are few things about the DPRK that make sense to us.”
Rodman’s trip, which was organized by Vice media company as part of a television series for HBO, included three Harlem Globetrotters, who played on mixed teams with North Korean players in a basketball game that ended in a 110-110 tie. The game seemed to at least be a happier affair than 1995. Photos show Rodman and Kim Jong Un sitting shoulder to shoulder, laughing it up over the Globetrotters antics, a scene that was splashed across the cover of the March 1 edition of Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the North Korean ruling party. In 1995 though, Kim Jong Il, famously reticent to speak to or even appear before large crowds, wasn’t seen at the festivities.
Ali might not have made the best companion for the Dear Leader. He didn’t speak much on the trip, but when he did he showed a sense of realism about relations with North Korea that eluded Rodman last week. The wrestler Flair described Ali’s brief, profane assessment in his autobiography Ric Flair: To Be the Man:
Because of the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, it was difficult to understand Muhammad Ali when he spoke. But at one function, we were sitting at a big, round table with a group of North Korean luminaries when one of the guys started rambling on about the moral superiority of North Korea, and how they could take out the United States or Japan any time they wanted. Suddenly, Ali piped up, clear as a bell, “No wonder we hate these motherf—–s.”