When Dennis Rodman landed in Pyongyang, the isolated capital of the world’s most isolated country, he announced his arrival with a tweet: “I come in peace. I love the people of North Korea!” One wonders whom the 51-year-old former basketball star thought he was reaching. No ordinary North Korean is on the Internet, nor has access to the recently installed 3G network through which Rodman presumably sent his tweet. The eccentric American baller, known as the “Worm,” kept up his awkward commentary throughout a tour of the Hermit Kingdom, where he was accompanied by members of the Harlem Globetrotters and a crew from Vice. On Thursday, it reached its surreal climax when Rodman sat next to a portly, grinning Kim Jong Un, the pariah state’s dynastic ruler, at a staged basketball game. According to reports, he proclaimed Kim to be “a friend for life.”
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One hopes there’s a hidden punchline here, that Rodman’s North Korea trip isn’t just the strange publicity grab of a faded celebrity and an irreverent media enterprise. One hopes that—in between the lavish 10-course meals at Kim’s palace and “paying tribute” to the statues of late despots Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il—Rodman may have actually learned something about North Korea and the people he says he loves. There’s certainly a lot that demands his attention. Five key lessons we hope he brings back to share with his American fans:
1. North Koreans are starving. Chronic food shortages—which followed the fall of the U.S.S.R. and are the result of the avarice and mismanagement of the military-first dictatorship in Pyongyang—are a fact of life, especially in rural areas. Two thirds of the country (some 16 million people) depends on meager government handouts. Refugees who escape have spoken of subsisting on grass and field mice. A U.N. report last year claims millions suffer from malnourishment and inadequate health services: a third of children under the age of five show signs of stunting. Because of poor sanitation, diarrhoea is a leading killer of children. “I’ve seen babies … who should have been sitting up who were not sitting up, and can hardly hold a baby bottle,” said the U.N. rapporteur in a Beijing press conference last year. A pantomime Marie Antoinette, Kim Jong Un reportedly sent out two pounds of candy to each child in his famine-stricken country in January to mark the young dictator’s birthday.
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2. North Korea keeps its starving people hostage to its belligerent nuclear policies. The international community, including the U.S., has offered hundreds of thousands of tons of food aid to Pyongyang. But the aid has been stymied by bargaining over North Korea’s illicit nuclear weapons program—in 2009, for example, shipments were stalled after Pyongyang decided to test a rocket. This month’s recent underground nuclear blast, the country’s third, makes diplomacy even harder.
3. North Korea is a land of prison camps — lots of prison camps. The dominant image of North Korea in the minds of outsiders is that of the eerie spectacle of the Mass Games and other rituals of totalitarian pageantry that its government seems to obsessively enact. But beyond that is a world of abuse and injustice. Tens of thousands languish in prison camps across the country. With the aid of citizen cartographers, Google recently pointed some of these sites on its maps—here is TIME Beijing correspondent Austin Ramzy piece on Google’s grim revelations.
(PHOTOS: A New Look at North Korea)
4. North Korea’s not just a Stalinist dictatorship—it’s a mafia state. The regime the Kims built doesn’t just oppress its people, censor everything and make daily life a never-ending propaganda play. It has also carried out illegal business operations that have a global reach, raking in an estimated $1 billion a year through activities such as drug trafficking, counterfeiting goods and money laundering, according to a 2007 TIME expose which branded the late Kim Jong Il “the Tony Soprano of North Korea.”
5. North Korea’s not just a mafia state—it’s a fascist, racist state. While nominally Communist, North Korea has become something else altogether after decades of force-feeding its population a steady diet of xenophobia and militarist nationalism. In an article in Foreign Policy, B.R. Myers, a South Korea-based academic and author of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters, says the state’s ideology “is a race-based worldview utterly at odds with the teachings of Marx and Lenin.” Propaganda celebrates with slavish devotion the glory of the Kim bloodline as well as the general purity of the North Korean race. An understanding of that fascist fervor led the late Christopher Hitchens to dub North Korea a “nation of racist dwarfs”—dwarfs because so many are stunted from malnourishment. In the state’s worldview, everyone else—the Chinese, the Japanese, the hated Americans, and yes, even Dennis Rodman—is suspect.
We hope he learned these things. Then again, maybe Rodman just talked hoops.