The historic summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un this past month in Singapore signaled a significant shift toward peace. This stood in stark contrast to the situation in April 2017 when I wondered whether the rapidly deescalating situation would lead to violence. I proposed a path to peace. With former NBA star Dennis Rodman as perhaps the only mutual friend of Trump and Kim, the latter acquaintance made through Basketball Diplomacy, Rodman stood in a unique position to bring the two leaders together. His efforts, in one way or another, made the Singapore summit a reality. Where their predecessors failed, Trump and Kim realized the potential for peace through the portal Rodman opened.
Your father and grandfather did a lot of fucked up shit, but you’re trying to change things and that’s a great, great thing.
–Dennis Rodman to Kim Jong-un as repeated on The Howard Stern Show
The quote above attributed to Rodman could also be applied to the policies of previous American administrations toward North Korea. President Barack Obama could have easily taken a phone call from Kim as Rodman advised in 2014. Through this simple act, Obama could have recognized Kim, as Trump did, as a man striving for modernity and improved international relations. With that, the peace process could have started earlier, and perhaps, like the three prisoners released ahead of the Singapore summit, Otto Warmbier might still be alive.
Likewise, the provocative acts and bellicose rhetoric of the George W. Bush administration, particularly, placing North Korea in its “axis of evil,” tainted any possibility for peace in the 2000s. The specter of the Bush administration’s disastrous neoconservative foreign policy, in the form of National Security Adviser John Bolton, nearly derailed the Singapore summit. Bolton, who worked as undersecretary of State and UN ambassador in the Bush administration, was hired as national security adviser earlier this year in what former President Jimmy Carter judged as the one of the worst mistakes of the Trump administration. Bolton’s statement that North Korea would receive the “Libya treatment,” referencing Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s unilateral decision to give up his weapons program in 2003, caused panic in Pyongyang, given that, just eight years after making the move, Gaddafi’s regime was decimated and its leader brutally murdered in the streets of Sirte with the help of the U.S. Thankfully, President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo salvaged the Singapore summit with reassurances that North Korea would not be treated like Libya.
Despite the political problems on the American side, the human rights abuses in North Korea (“fucked up shit”) remains a major impediment to peace. Many people in the nation starve. Prisons, labor camps, and re-education centers subject detainees to torture and death. The regime restricts basic human rights and oppresses its people. This framework goes back to the policies of Kim Jong-un’s father and grandfather. As Rodman explained in his Howard Stern appearance, “[Kim] didn’t create this bullshit. He just inherited it.” Although Kim has continued the policies of his father and grandfather, he simply rules as he knows. His exposure to Rodman, Trump and others opens new horizons and opportunities. The high-tech marvels of Singapore show Kim what a modern North Korea could be.
Rodman’s humanization of Kim and insistence that Kim has the desire to bring forth a new era for North Korea, seemingly allowed President Trump to see the same, thus setting aside decades of failed policies. Choosing peace eliminates the fear of nuclear confrontation. Choosing peace opens new possibilities for millions of people.
Though Rodman is content to receive a hug and a handshake from President Trump, his efforts should earn him consideration for the Nobel Peace Prize. In the very least, once regular diplomatic relations are established between the U.S. and North Korea, Rodman should be named the first U.S. ambassador to North Korea.