I couldn’t take my eyes off Kim Jong Un.
There he was: the young leader of a rogue nuclear state; a man about whom the world knew dangerously little — sitting right across the table from me. He raised a glass of soju in a toast to both improved relations between the US and North Korea, and to friendship with us, his dinner guests for the evening.
“Is this really happening?” I asked myself.
It happened, but it wasn’t real. And just as the diplomatic breakthrough between North and South Korea at the Winter Games in Pyeongchang might not immediately produce any real-world results — that’s okay.
Five years ago this week, I led a motley crew to North Korea as part of an experiment in basketball diplomacy for the HBO news magazine show, VICE. Our entourage included Chicago Bulls star Dennis Rodman, three members of the Harlem Globetrotters, and correspondent Ryan Duffy.
Our goals were straightforward: get a crew of Americans loaded with camera equipment into the country, play basketball with young North Koreans, and film it. Of course, all of this was much easier said than done, and required nearly a year of navigating labyrinthine North Korean bureaucracy before finally being given the green light to make the journey.
Our arrival at the airport in Pyongyang was pure spectacle. We were greeted by a mob of North Korean officials and international camera crews that transmitted images of our strange caravan around the world. The immediate reaction of many in the media was sanctimonious outrage — some said that making the trip just weeks after the regime’s most recent nuclear test was “tasteless” while others said we were giving the country a propaganda coup. US News and World Report ran an op-ed calling our gambit “D-List diplomacy.”
Nor was everyone in North Korea excited about our visit. Moments after the photo scrum at the airport, I was pulled away from the rest of our delegation and put into the back of a black limousine with a hard-edged woman who seemed to be some sort of intelligence official. She got straight to the point: She was familiar with my work, she didn’t like me, and she didn’t like the company I worked for. She said she had argued against our visit, but that she had been overruled. I assumed she’d seen a story I’d produced two years earlier about North Korean labor camps run in eastern Russia, but I was worried she somehow caught wind of a more recent — but at that point still unreleased — story I’d done for which I traveled alongside a group of North Korean defectors as they made a perilous journey to freedom via a network of human smugglers.
“That was a different time,” I said, masking my nervousness and obliquely referring to the fact that the labor camp story was done before Kim Jong Un took power at the end of 2011. “A lot has changed since then. This is a historic opportunity to set aside our differences, put the past behind us, and to focus on the future. We have a chance to show people a new side of the DPRK, and the fact that we’ve been allowed to make this visit says a lot about the possibilities.”
I hadn’t lost sight of the country’s ongoing legacy of brutality, and I didn’t for an instant think the country was suddenly going to become an upstanding member of the international community. But this endeavor required a suspension of disbelief that would allow both visitors and hosts to play out their respective roles. We were each trying to extract something different out of a shared experience. They controlled what was presented, but the presentation was ours to interpret.
Luckily for us, this mystery woman had little influence over our visit. Instead, we were in the hands of the country’s Olympic Committee. All of our activities — everything we saw, every place we went — was controlled by them. They were keen to take the opening their government had provided and fill it with as many displays of peace, love, and understanding as they could. As such, they immediately requested that the teams in the upcoming exhibition basketball game be mixed so that each side was made up of both American and North Korean players, thereby eliminating the opportunity for one nation to claim it had defeated the other.
This tendency toward diminishing the appearance of a rivalry between our two countries was a recurring theme throughout our time in North Korea. The itineraries they’d prepared for us were packed with activities that emphasized our common bond of sport, and were surprisingly bereft of the kind of militaristic monuments and bombastic anti-American propaganda we’d expected — and even wanted — to see. Indeed, no matter how many times we asked, or literally begged, to visit the captured American ship USS Pueblo or the museum devoted to the DPRK’s official version of the Korean War — in which the conflict was started by South Korea and won by the North — our hosts would tell us that these places were “closed for remodeling” or that we didn’t have time in our schedule for a stop.
During our nearly two-week stay, we would come to realize that the members of the DPRK’s Olympic Committee are among the country’s most worldly citizens. Unlike most North Koreans, they knew what the world outside of the hermit kingdom was like: They’d traveled to more countries than your average American, and as part of their jobs they were enthusiastic scholars of countries with which they interacted. They would never say a negative word about their own country, but their knowing glances and occasional smirks in response to our cheeky questions revealed a self-awareness about the limitations of the DPRK that I wasn’t expecting. No one would claim that these folks have influence over policy, but within their lane, we saw them work to present an image of openness, camaraderie, and a yearning to engage with the rest of the world. If their attitudes are shared by members of the North Korean elite with whom they rub shoulders, then there’s hope that there are prominent members of North Korean society actively looking for opportunities to change.
So I was heartened to hear the news that the DPRK would be participating in this month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, marching into the games under a unified Korean flag, and even playing as a unified team in women’s ice hockey. When I learned that Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, would also be making the trip to the games, I thought, “This is a really big deal.”
And it was a big deal. The press covered every aspect of the DPRK’s delegation: from the performance of its figure skaters, to the antics of its cheerleaders, to the diplomacy of its ruling elite. Media outlets ranging from Reuters to the Washington Post were criticized for “fawning” coverage of a totalitarian regime, and accused of falling for a shrewd North Korean propaganda operation. Experts, activists, pundits, and politicians worked hard to take advantage of the interest in North Korea to highlight the country’s abuses of its own citizens, its murderous transgressions against its neighbors in the South, and its aggressive nuclear ambitions.
These critiques are all fair play. Hijacking the attention of an Olympic-sized audience to push one’s own agenda is smart tactic. It’s silly to claim that it’s wrong to politicize the games, or that we need to pay reverence to the grand tradition of the Olympics. The games are a highly commercial celebration of nationalism that reflects the geopolitical climate of the moment. They are are a man-made spectacle, and what is the point of a spectacle if not to be interpreted from a thousand points of view, used as a catalyst for debate, or cited as an example in an argument you’re trying to make?
Here’s mine: Regardless of what the DPRK’s intentions were in participating in Pyeongchang, and regardless of whether or not the diplomatic good vibes between the North and the South linger, it’s important that we continue to give North Korea room to engage with the rest of the world. Even if in the weeks ahead Kim Jong Un returns to his bellicose threats and the goodwill put forth at Pyeongchang appears to be a wasted effort, it’s important that — when the opportunity next presents itself — we suspend disbelief and again go through the motions of what life would be like if we could find a way to get along.
That’s what we did in 2013 as our delegation drank the night away with Kim Jong Un and his inner circle. We talked about our families and we talked about the future. The members of the DPRK’s Olympic committee, economic ministers, and nuclear negotiators with whom we mingled talked continually about was how much they hoped our visit would “break the ice.” Kim Jong Un echoed this sentiment when he gave a toast, saying that he hoped it would lead to a warming of relations between the US and North Korea. Caught up in the moment, I extended an invitation to Kim Jong Un to come to New York, which elicited a belly laugh from the youthful dictator.
I woke up the next morning with a massive hangover and the realization that any breakthrough our personal charm offensive might have achieved in the preceding days probably only existed in my imagination. Indeed, less than a week later, as the US and South Korea engaged in annual joint military exercises, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry threatened for the first time to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States. I wondered at the time if this revealed the existence of a battle inside the DPRK between old-school hardliners and the more progressive-seeming folks I’d met, or if it simply meant that the regime was as good at talking out of both sides of its mouth as any modern government.
What was certain was that in the time spent with our North Korean hosts, we humanized each other. If governments continue to create opportunities for face-to-face interactions with their North Korean counterparts they will benefit from seeing each other as people rather than as the cartoon versions portrayed in their nations’ press.
The US had such an opportunity in Pyeongchang, where a meeting was reportedly on the books between Vice President Mike Pence and the North Korean delegation. But Pence’s public activities and odd behavior during his visit seemed designed to repel the North Koreans, and that they did. North Korea reportedly backed out of the meeting just two hours before it was to occur. The US government succeeded in repeating its “maximum pressure” mantra, but diplomatically, it is back at square one. The South Korean government, however, keeps trying to move the ball forward. As the Olympics drew to a close on Sunday, the office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in signaled that North Korea is open to talks with the United States.
So, while the Trump administration tries to figure out its stance on talking, South Korea should keep up what it started in Pyeongchang. Kim Yo Jong’s smile isn’t so disarming that President Moon will dismantle his country’s THAAD missile defense in a spontaneous act of goodwill, so there’s no reason to not continue with these diplomatic baby steps.
It may be exhausting to repeatedly go through these elaborate theatrics with so few real gains to show for it. But if the goal is a peaceful co-existence with a denuclearized North Korea, sometimes you gotta fake it ’til you make it.