Dennis Rodman was criticized for his defense of “basketball diplomacy” with North Korea. While the ethics of tourism to North Korea remain in question, Rodman is not the first sports figure to visit the country.
In 1995, Antonio Inoki, a Japanese wrestler, wrestling promoter, and politician organized a pro-wrestling event “Collision in Korea.” The event included high-profile guests like Ric Flair and Muhammad Ali.
Despite the 18-year gap between the sporting events, North Korea has not changed much. The country remains isolated and authoritarian, with continuing human-rights issues. What is different, however, is how the athletes conducted themselves.
When asked about his visit to North Korea in 1995, Ric Flair said he “didn’t say a word to anybody. I could tell how tense it was.” Flair continued, “They wanted me to make this public statement, saying that I knew after spending time in North Korea that they could destroy America or any other country they wanted to at any moment. I didn’t say it.” Flair said he was happy when his trip ended.
Rodman, on the other hand, has been to North Korea three times. In his most recent visit, he even sang happy birthday to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, whom he call his “friend.” Rodman’s NBA cohorts did not join in singing to the dictator, and some even expressed mixed views of the trip.
Little is known about Kim Jong-un. Other high profile Americans have been to North Korea, including former governor of New Mexico Bill Richards and Google CEO Eric Schmidt, but neither was granted the opportunity to meet the North Korean leader. Rodman, with all his eccentricities, is the closest connection the rest of the world has to the reclusive dictator.