There are few better illustrations for how dysfunctional U.S.-North Korea relations have become than the events of June 13. Dressed in a black tee for sponsor “Potcoin,” a cryptocurrency for the global marijuana industry, NBA legend Dennis Rodman arrived in Pyongyang, telling assembled media, “I’m here to see some friends and have a good time.” Hours later, Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student sentenced to 15 years' hard labor for "hostile acts,” was medevac’d back to the U.S. reportedly in a coma.
North Korea remains for most Americans a subject of otherworldly fascination — a land of brutalist streetscapes, Stalinist iconography and a closed, collectivized society not seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the plight of Warmbier, who was arrested at Pyongyang Airport last January after allegedly stealing a hotel’s propaganda poster, shows that North Korea is also geopolitical TNT: unpredictable, potentially deadly, and prone to calamitous combustion if not handled with the utmost care.
Nevertheless, it seems that Rodman, the 56-year-old New Jersey-native and five-time NBA champion, has now become a key interlocutor with that regime. And Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un is exploiting that situation to boost calls for reengagement, thus turning a diplomatic crisis over Warmbier's health into a deft piece of legerdemain.
“The North Koreans may have known they screwed up,” says Bill Richardson, a former New Mexico governor and congressman who works to negotiate the release of American prisoners in North Korea. “And so [Rodman] may get a message from somebody there that [North Korea] is ready for dialogue. He may be the only channel."
North Korea’s position is that Warmbier fell into prolonged unconsciousness after being given a sleeping pill after contracting botulism, a potentially fatal bacterial illness. Still, returning the 22-year-old while welcoming the two-time NBA All-Star Rodman shows Kim has well learned his family's tried and trusted trick of never letting a good crisis go to waste.
“It’s a definitely a signal to Washington that you need to move away from ‘maximum pressure’ tactics and instead saying, ‘look what you can get by engaging,’” says Ken Gause, a Korea expert for CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization located in Arlington, VA. "The only risk is if Rodman has some sort of meltdown."
Although State Department backchannels have been working for the release of all four Americans held by the regime for some time, a breakthrough only came during a track two talk in Oslo in May, says Richardson. The North Koreans requested a meeting with U.S. representatives in New York City to discuss Warmbier's health. New State Department Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun then traveled to Pyongyang with an American delegation June 12 and demanded Warmbier's release on humanitarian grounds.
Read More: How Otto Warmbier Made It Out Of North Korea
That Kim capitulated is unusual. Since the Korean peninsular re-split in 1953, following an armistice that essentially marked the end of the three-year Korean Civil War, North Korea’s Kim dynasty has excelled at brinkmanship — switching between threats, displays of strength and conciliatory overtures. When Americans are nabbed by the regime, influential diplomatic figures are typically wheeled out to secure their release, marking a brief period of detente. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter performed this role in 2009 and 2010 respectively.
But since taking office, President Donald Trump has tried to turn the screws on Pyongyang, putting pressure on China — source of nearly all North Korean trade — to cut off revenue streams. In April, Trump also dispatched the U.S. Navy Carl Vinson Strike Group to the Korean Peninsula and warned of a “major, major conflict” if Kim did not rein in its nuclear program. According to a report in the U.S. Financial Times, Carter was even specifically told not to get involved.
The lack of a key figure to travel to Pyongyang and show the regime face was likely a sticking point that kept Warmbier behind bars for 17 months. Kim might have normally bided his time and waited for domestic pressure to build in the U.S., but Wambier’s health problems meant that was no longer an option.
“From the North Korea perspective, it’s one thing to have him in a coma and another thing to have him pass away during his detainment,” says John Park, director of the Korea Working Group at the Harvard Kennedy School. “So my concern is that he’s not in great health.”
And so Kim may have manufactured his own diplomatic intervention: The mercurial Rodman. “He’s not the best ambassador we could have but it’s who we have,” shrugs Gause. Kim, meanwhile, has managed to get the same message across as if a former President arrived: Engage with us and reap the dividends.
And it’s a persuasive one. In 1994, Carter met with Kim Il Sung, grandfather of Kim Jong Un and father to Kim Jong Il, and successfully managed to persuade the “Sun of the Nation” to cooperate with the Clinton administration over its nuclear program. Carter reportedly told his briefers: "What he wants is my respect. And I am going to give it to him." Carter knew that he had to give the elder Kim face to gain meaningful concessions.
Engaging with North Korea is not easy, of course. The regime has kidnapped scores of Japanese nationals, shelled islands and sunk a naval corvette belonging to South Korea, and keeps its own people under conditions that amount to “crimes against humanity,” according to a 2014 U.N. report. In addition, it has frequently reneged on deals regarding its nuclear and missile program while extracting billions of dollars in aid. But the recent decade of isolation has not gained any better behavior from the regime — in fact, quite the opposite, highlighted by Warmbier's deplorable treatment.
“We know that pressure doesn’t work, but we don’t know what a mixture of pressure and serious engagement might get us,” adds Gause. “It might get us nothing, but we’re never going to unless we start to seriously explore some of these avenues.”
Reducing the otherworldliness, and the mistrust, can also minimize the possibility of combustion. Two more Americans were seized by the regime just this year, and all are potentially imperiled by its ceaseless pursuit of nuclear weapons. We may not like it, and it might not even work, but either way it’s a situation too delicate for Ambassador Rodman to take the lead.
—With reporting by Nash Jenkins/Hong Kong