Saturday, 28 September 2013

Korea - The Final Word in Basketball Diplomacy

As I'm blogging about a new place, I like to keep an eye on the news coming from that country - generally, things are pretty quiet and it makes you realise that, political hot-spots apart, not much happens in other parts of the world that would catch the attention of the international media. Not so with Korea, especially North Korea - which has been constantly in the news in the past few weeks. 

Whether it's the 60th anniversary celebrations, the wrangling over the Kaesong Industrial zone, or the South Koreans shooting dead a man trying to cross the border to enter the North - Korea is one of those places that easily makes the news headlines. 

Basketball coaching in Pyongyang by Scot Byrd
One of the weirdest news stories I've read about North Korea in the past few weeks, involves the US basketball player Dennis Rodman who has, quite famously, made two trips to North Korea this year - he is believed to be the first American to meet North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong-un and, being interviewed at the airport in Beijing, declared that 'He [Kim Jong-un] is my friend for life - I don't care what you guys think about him'

Rodman has quite a reputation for (what people in England would call) eccentricity, back in the States - he's probably just as famous for his piercings and ever-changing hair colour, as he is for his basketball legacy and awards, not to mention dating Madonna and appearing naked with basketballs on the cover of his autobiography, Bad As I Wanna Be

I can see what's in it for Rodman - perhaps a genuine desire to do something useful, backed up with the need for continued celebrity, now that his heyday as a basketball player is over.  But what's in it for Kim?  Does he even realise (or care) how all of this is perceived in the West? 

North Korean kids playing basketball by Scot Byrd
I'm also wondering why sport is increasingly seen as a major political arena for the big issues of 21st century life?  Sure, sport can bring people together, despite its competitiveness, it's something that's enjoyed the world over - the Olympic games, the FIFA World Cup, ping pong, cricket, even basketball can create wonderful opportunities for cultural exchange.  But sport can also be divisive - North Korea boycotted the Seoul Olympics in 1988, a real missed opportunity for both Koreas to welcome the world and celebrate the Olympic games together.

But does sport really have all the answers?  To homophobia in Russia?  To racism on the football fields?  To nuclear weapons in Pyongyang?  And is someone like Dennis Rodman really the best person to manage diplomacy with an erratic regime like Kim Jong-un's?  Will his attempts to bring NBA players to North Korea really bring Americans and North Koreans closer together, or will it backfire, when Kim Jong-un realises what a circus this whole thing is?  Who knows - but it'll be interesting to see what happens next in the Rodman/North Korean story!

Image credits:

I found these wonderful images by Scot Byrd (aka byrdsiz) of young North Koreans playing basketball on Flickr and they have been shared with us using the Creative Commons license.  It looks as though Scot travelled to North Korea with a basketball initiative known as Project uNKnown - which looks like a genuinely ground-breaking initiative to use basketball as a way of overcoming cultural boundaries and getting to 'know' each other.   Thanks Scot for sharing these images with us. 
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