Commentary: Is it time for Basketball Diplomacy in North Korea?

While we are engrossed in the March Madness that is the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the rest of the world seems to be spiraling out of control.
The past few weeks has seen an increase in threats from North Korea directed at South Korea, as well as Japan and the United States. These threats have to this point remained empty but the risk of war in Asia seems to grow each day.
The North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un ordered his military to be on high alert as early as February. Recently North Korea backed out of the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953 and has kept peace between North and South Korea ever since.
North Korea also has a poor reputation for human rights on the global stage. According to ABC News, 200,000 political prisoners are in forced labor-camps. It was reported on March 23 in the South Korean paper Chosun llbo that the Communist regime has also ordered its foreign diplomats to sell state-manufactured drugs from their embassies to earn hard currency.
Into this chaotic country came Dennis Rodman. The NBA Hall-of-Famer and five-time NBA Champion made international headlines when he visited the communist country in February and was photographed sitting next to Kim Jong-Un at a basketball game in North Korea’s capital city of Pyongyang. The two were watching a game between members of the Harlem Globetrotters and the Korean University of Physical Education.
Following his trip, Rodman went on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos and told Stephanopoulos that Kim Jong-Un loves basketball and is waiting on a call from President Obama, though he did not specify what the purpose of the call would be.
The State Department has not come out in support of Rodman’s trip to North Korea, and relations between the United States and North Korea remain non-existant. But if what Rodman said was true, then there are options for avoiding a war.
The first option would be for Rodman to take a former NBA legend, such as Michael Jordan or Earvin “Magic” Johnson, maybe Charles Barkley, with him to North Korea. This would probably be unlikely to happen, but it might help improve relations between the two nations if they were given the chance to meet two great American athletes.
Another option would be to offer reciprocal tours. The NBA occasionally opens the season with exhibition games in Asian countries such as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. It is unknown how North Korea would interpret an offer to have our best athletes put on an exhibition of NBA teams, but if Kim Jong-Un really loves basketball, he won’t turn down an opportunity to see the best basketball players in the world.
We would then offer an invitation for the North Korean national basketball team to tour the United States, playing against college teams, while being shown the friendliness and hospitality that Americans are known for.
The final game of the North Korean national team’s tour could be played in Washington D.C. against the reigning collegiate National Champion with Kim Jong-Un and Barack Obama sitting together to talk about a mutual interest—basketball.
The chance that either of these options happen is about as good as those of a 16-seed beating a one-seed in the NCAA tournament (16’s are now 0-116 all-time against one seeds), but it is worth trying if it means preventing a war and improving the non-existant conversation between North Korea and the United States.
Sports can open doors that politics can’t. In 1971, the United States and China, also a communist nation, regained their mutual diplomatic relationship following a ping-pong exhibition between the United States national team and the Chinese team. This incident became known as Ping Pong Diplomacy. While it wasn’t until the late 70s that the United States restored full diplomatic relations with China, the road to reunion began with a sporting exhibition.
Maybe it is time to think outside the box and give sports a chance to calm the tensions.