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Ex-NBA star's visit to Pyongyang welcome

By Liu Litao | China Daily | Updated: 2017-06-16 08:00

Former NBA star Dennis Rodman landed in Pyongyang on Tuesday on his fifth visit to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea since 2013 and his first since US President Donald Trump assumed office.

Not surprisingly, Rodman's visit has triggered fresh discussions: Is he the right man to break the ice between the DPRK and the United States? And, more importantly, will his visit to the DPRK defuse the tensions on the Korean Peninsula?

First, Rodman is definitely suited for the job. Since his first visit to the DPRK, he remains one of the few US citizens to maintain a good personal relationship with DPRK leader Kim Jong-un. During his visits to the DPRK, he has not only been warmly received by the DPRK leader, but also reportedly interacted with his family, which is rare for outsiders. Besides, Rodman has, in his own way, shown his respect for Kim Jong-un, by organizing a basketball game with other former National Basketball Association and DPRK players in January 2014. And during several interviews he has said Kim Jong-un is his "lifetime friend".

What makes Rodman a really rare figure is his personal link with Trump - he was a cast member on Trump's Celebrity Apprentice for two seasons and supported Trump during the US presidential campaign. As a "friend" to leaders of the DPRK and the US both, he is one of the few persons fit for the job.

Second, Rodman's visit could create an atmosphere for Washington and Pyongyang to hold talks. With their differences over the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue widening, both sides are under pressure to ease the tensions. The DPRK under UN sanction cannot afford a long-term military competition while the US hopes the peninsula nuclear issue is resolved as soon as possible, because it is a headache for many countries and could undermine the regional economy and security. And Trump has more than once said he is willing to hold dialogues with the DPRK on condition that it abandons its nuclear program and missile tests.

But whether the US and the DPRK will eventually agree to talks depends largely on how they view the situation. If Rodman can help them to better understand each other's needs, he would be laying the ground for US-DPRK dialogue in the future.

The importance of Rodman's visit to the DPRK, however, should not be overestimated. Some media outlets describe his visit to the DPRK as "basketball diplomacy", reminding people of the "ping-pong diplomacy" that helped China and the US to re-establish diplomatic ties in the 1970s. But the two are not comparable because the nature of the disputes between the DPRK and the US is different from those between Beijing and Washington in the 1970s.

For Pyongyang, nuclear capability is a matter of life and death while for Washington, a nuclear-capable DPRK poses a threat to US security as well as the global nuclear non-proliferation system. So a meeting point can be reached only when both sides change their rigid stances.

In this sense, Rodman's visit could help both countries to shift, even if slightly, from their inflexible positions in order to resolve (or at least try to resolve) a complicated and high-voltage issue, which will help both sides to show goodwill to each other and better communicate with each other. Of course, he cannot be expected to persuade the two countries to change their long established policies.

Generally, a visit by a high-profile US citizen to the DPRK is considered a minefield. But since Rodman's visit seems different, let us hope it comes with something.

The author is an associate professor at School of International Studies, Nanjing University.

Ex-NBA star's visit to Pyongyang welcome

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