Ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman and some of the Harlem Globetrotters visited North Korea between February 26th and March 1st. One of the Americans who was on the trip with Rodman approached us about another matter to do with North Korea and shared some interesting details about the trip. The contact did not wish to be named in this interview.
Since the trip came so soon after North Korea’s rocket launch and nuclear test, some people at first conjectured that the delegation was sent by the US government to conduct ‘basketball diplomacy’. How was the trip arranged? What was the purpose?
The conjecture is incorrect. In fact, Rodman himself did not know about the trip to Pyongyang until after it had been arranged. Vice Media has a history of showcasing countries that are closed, relatively unknown or in a state of war. They planned the trip with HBO, thinking that if a famous basketball player was in the group, Kim Jong-un – an avid basketball fan – would come to meet them. At first, Michael Jordan was asked to lead the trip, but he refused. Someone then put Dennis Rodman forward as a suggestion.
If that was the case, why was the trip made in so public a manner?
The Associated Press correspondent based in Pyongyang is a Korean-American. She may have found out about the trip through organizers in Pyongyang. We had planned to conduct a low-profile trip, but Jean publicized our trip on Twitter.
This was Rodman’s first time in Pyongyang. What was it like when all of you landed?
It was very dark and chaotic. Most of the other passengers on our flight were North Koreans. I was shocked at how much luggage they had with them – it was as if there was no weight limit. In the baggage retrieval at the airport, there was a couple who introduced themselves to us as diplomats based in North Korea. They said to me quietly, “North Korea doesn’t produce anything. That’s why everyone is bringing in goods from China.”
What was it like going from the airport to Pyongyang city centre?
It was alright. I have to be careful about what I say because I’m going to Pyongyang again. (laughs)
What hotel did you stay in?
We stayed in Koryo Hotel. We had the whole of the 39th floor to ourselves. It was amazing. Kim Jong-un sent us chefs, and every meal was a spectacle. I’ve had a lot of good food in the US, but the food we had in North Korea was really something. The only disappointing thing was there not being enough salad. Nevertheless, we had all kinds of meat, sashimi and all kinds of Korean dishes. Korean restaurants in the US can’t compare! Moreover, we had very expensive French wine at every meal. One of the two cameramen had a birthday during the trip, and he got a birthday feast with champagne. On the last day, we saw Kim Ok.
How did you know she was Kim Ok?
I recognised her face as the woman who had been introduced as Kim Jong-il’s wife. The 39th floor that we stayed on was a restricted area, not anyone could just come up to visit us. A woman came up to our floor alone, asking if we needed anything. I thought wow, she must be important, and then I recognised her as Kim Ok. When Kim Jong-un and Rodman watched the basketball game, she stood close to one side too. It looked like she was there because she was in charge of looking after VIP guests, and not especially because she had been Kim Jong-il’s wife. Her hair was down, and it looked like she hadn’t brushed it.
I’m sure the players very much enjoyed North Korea’s welcome?
After the basketball game on the 28th, there was a party with Kim Jong-un. One of the players got really drunk on the wine, and we found him asleep in his bathtub the next morning! Rodman had a really good time – he even tossed his plane ticket away at the airport on March 1st, and threw a tantrum about wanting to stay longer. Eventually, we persuaded him. He will definitely return to North Korea as Kim Jong-un’s friend.
Did you have a chance to meet ordinary North Koreans? Did you get a glimpse of their lives?
No. What really felt strange was how the electricity came on wherever we went. When we neared an area, the streets turned bright and apartment lights came on. One foreigner who used to live in Pyongyang told us how the North Koreans were trying hard to impress us, making sure we had a good time.
Did you ever feel during the trip that North Korea was a strange country?
A few times. Once was when Kim Jong-un and Rodman came into the stadium for the basketball exhibition. The crowd applauded and cheered for over ten minutes. I thought it was a welcome cheer at first, but it went on for too long – it felt creepy by the end.
Rodman got a shock too on another occasion. The female staff at Koryo Hotel came to Rodman holding an issue of the state newspaper Rodong Sinmun with a picture of Kim Jong-un and Rodman on the front page. They were congratulating him for being on the front page, but Rodman thought they were asking for an autograph. He signed over the photo.
Suddenly, everyone’s face turned to stone, and one woman even shot him a furious look. She crumpled up the desecrated paper and took it away. If a North Korean had done as Rodman did and scribbled over a photo of the ruling Kim, he would have been sent to the gulag.
What were the facilities at the stadium like?
It was donated by the South Korean corporation Hyundai, so the facilities were great. At first, the basketball hoops had been imported from China. As the quality was not up to scratch, they were eventually replaced with ones donated by a South Korean company called ‘Donga’.
Any other comments you would like to share with us?
That’s it for now. I hope to see you continue your great work.