Robert Nolan is an editor at the Foreign Policy Association and producer of the Great Decisions in Foreign Policy television series on PBS. Follow him on Twitter: @robert_nolan.
Given the lack of progress on any kind of meaningful U.S. engagement with North Korea to curb its nuclear tests and ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula, it's tempting to think that track-two diplomacy could help the situation.
After all, the United States has a number of seasoned personalities like former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who has long sought to open up dialogue between the United States and isolated North Korea, and has visited Pyongyang on a number of occasions. Richardson was joined on his most recent trip last month by Google CEO Eric Schmidt with the hope of offering an olive branch through technology.
When the citizen diplomat, however, is D-list celebrity and former NBA rebounding machine Dennis Rodman, trailed by a production team from VICE, as happened this week, faith in track-two diplomacy starts to become a bit hazier.
Rodman became the first high profile American to meet with North Korea's young leader Kim Jong Un, who like his father, is apparently a huge basketball fan. The visit, part of a production partnership between VICE and HBO that will culminate in a documentary about North Korea airing in April, brought Rodman and a handful of members from the Harlem Globetrotters to Pyongyang, where they scrimmaged in front of a crowd of North Koreans in suits and will also put on a basketball clinic for kids.
Based on the initial photos and tweets released by VICE, though, the trip looked more like an exercise in indulgence rather than the touted "basketball diplomacy." Ryan Duffy, a correspondent for the irreverent media group VICE, described a lavish meal of 10 courses.
"Dinner was an epic feast. Felt like about 10 courses in total," Duffy said in an E-mail to AP cited by Atlantic Wire. "I'd say the winners were the smoked turkey and sushi, though we had the Pyongyang cold noodles earlier in the trip and that's been the runaway favorite so far." Producer Jason Mojica tweeted that dinner was followed by the crew getting "wasted" with Kim at the Supreme Leader's home.
With reports emerging in recent months that some North Koreans have had to resort to cannibalism to stay alive and famine a perennial threat to millions of repressed men, women, and children in North Korea, those remarks and current headline on the VICE website that "North Korea has a friend in Dennis Rodman and VICE," seem a bit, well, tasteless.
Readers of VICE, myself included, appreciate the site's unorthodox, quasi shock-journalistic approach to serious issues. It's one of a handful of rapidly growing media outlets by and for a generation that looks at the world it is so irrevocably connected with a bit more cynically than previous generations of Americans. Nevertheless, VICE reports on real issues, often covering important stories neglected by the mainstream media that entail corruption, hypocrisy, and general evil doing in far flung locations.
But while the event has been a clear publicity coup for VICE, the group's North Korea gambit comes off more Jackass than journalism. And despite Rodman's mea culpa that he's "not a politician," perhaps the most lasting effect of his trip to North Korea will be a new entry into the lexicon of international relations, known simply as "D-list diplomacy."