No, seriously, they did. The White House issued a whole statement condemning the Dennis Rodman visit to North Korea, and North Korea for allowing him to visit, insisting “celebrity sporting events” of this kind are unacceptable.
The administration’s position reflects the always sympathetic media’s own stance on Rodman’s visit, putting it somewhere between an outrage and a joke. Only ABC’s George Stephanopoulos even gave the basketball star anything resembling a fair hearing on his visit, and he faced a flurry of criticism for doing so.
Whether they’re more officially outraged at Rodman “propping up” North Korea (as though he was actually capable of doing so) or North Korea for propping up Rodman isn’t even clear, and the reality is that the reaction more reflects on North Korea’s status as faceless “bad guy state” and the discomfort of having anything happen there that isn’t a de facto outrage.
Official condemnation seems little more than a cursory nod at this point, as so eager is the administration to discredit Rodman’s visit, or pretend it never happened that they declined publicly to even debrief him on the matter, unheard of for a rare visit to North Korea
Sports have long played a special role in opening up nations, and if there’s one thing the Obama Administration seems determined to avoid it is an “opening up” of North Korea. How else can one explain that the US reacted with condemnation when North Korea offered to sign a peace deal officially ending the Korean War. It’s been 60 years since the war was really being fought, but US administrations seem more comfortable with keeping the war officially on, seeing a state of peace as an unacceptable “compromise.”
Having Dennis Rodman feted by North Korea’s leader, and worse yet, having him come back speaking of him as a friend undermines the official position of North Korea as a carefully sealed black box from which only vaguely-defined cartoonish bad guys can emerge.
After 60 years one would think the US would at least be resigned to North Korea’s existence, but officials seem stubbornly comfortable in the status quo. Even in 1995, when Japan sought to play a little “sports diplomacy” with North Korea, sending legendary pro wrestlers Antonio Inoki and America’s own “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, the US played no role. Nearly 20 years on, the US government still seems uncomfortable with the prospect of a thaw, and it is only a single basketball player with an unconventional reputation that manages to find time to visit. And he gets denounced for it.