Media Representations Workshop

Few issues involving North Korea have been as prominent or talked-about in the media as the most recent “basketball diplomacy” trips led by Dennis Rodman. From its inception, this proposed project was framed and labelled most generously as a shallow publicity stunt to most critically as downright morally reprehensible. The referrals by ex-NBA player Rodman to Kim Jong Un as a “friend for life” and his repressive rule over the country as “not that bad” infuriated political pundits and human rights activists worldwide. The subsequent outbursts from Rodman on CNN, admissions that his experiment was a failure, and further check-in to rehab only seemed to vindicate these condemnations.

Dennis Rodman is surrounded by journalists in Pyongyang, North Korea, during his February 2013 trip. (Kim Kwang Hyon/AP)
Dennis Rodman is surrounded by journalists in Pyongyang, North Korea, during his February 2013 trip. (Kim Kwang Hyon/AP)

However, Dennis Rodman’s eccentric personality and political naivete unfortunately overshadowed a potentially productive mission – to develop and establish trust with the North Korean elite, as well as helping to extinguish the standard stereotype of Westerners in North Korea among common citizens. Frustrated diplomats that have been working for decades to be able to interact with the North Korean government believe that Rodman squandered an intimate opportunity to broach sensitive political issues. Yet while Rodman arbitrarily labelled his mission as diplomatic, he was not acting as a representative of the government and was under no obligation to confront North Korean leaders about high-profile issues such as the abduction of Kenneth Bae.

U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Glyn Davies speaks to the media at a hotel in Beijing, China, May 15, 2013.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Glyn Davies speaks to the media at a hotel in Beijing, China, May 15, 2013.

This brings up an important topic for debate: do widely publicized non-political missions to North Korea serve a greater good in expanding long-term communications and cultural exchange, even if it comes at the expense of a politically confrontational arrangement? If Dennis Rodman had brought up these politically charged affairs, would that have resulted in a more diplomatically productive mission, or simply have severed the progress he may have been able to establish? Would the media and Western governments have united and even supported a similar mission if it was under the leadership of a less divisive and more rational figure? How does the media’s framework of such events determine their outcome before they even begin, and would an alternative framework help to foster a potential agent for change?

Robbie Hatch
Stream Researcher and Workshop Facilitator

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