North Korea’s Kim Jong Un: Basketball Fan, Closet Liberal?

Kim Jong Un with Dennis Rodman watch an exhibition basketbal game in North Korea last week (AP Photo)

KGB director Yuri Andropov was a jazz aficionado and collector of abstract art, so he must be a liberal, it was said. Great change was expected when he took over as the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1982.

Well, no. It turns out that he did not use the KGB as a clever cover for his secret liberal soul. Brutal repression continued apace. The U.S.S.R. had to wait for Mikhail Gorbachev, who did have a secret liberal soul.

Much the same blather continues to be spread about North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. After all, he attended prep school in Switzerland. He likes Disney characters. And he is a fan of American basketball.

Not just any basketball player. According to the BBC:

Mathew Syed, [LondonTimes sports columnist, told the Today programme: “When I heard that [Dennis] Rodman had gone to North Korea, I was genuinely shocked.

But it turns out that Kim Jong-un is a lifelong fan, apparently enjoyed it enormously, and sport being used as a potential tool for political rapprochement has a very long history.”

So forget “ping-pong diplomacy” with Mao’s China. Dennis Rodman is the vehicle for the Kim dynasty as it inaugurates democracy, establishes capitalism, and protects human rights. Perhaps Rodman and Kim will share the next Nobel Peace Prize.

It would be a wonderful story. But as yet there is no hint of serious reform in the North. Kim is younger and more open, attending events with his attractive, designer-handbag-toting wife. However, the labor camps remain full, controls on the border with China have been tightened, rumored economic reforms remain just rumors, and Pyongyang has moved ahead with rocket and nuclear tests.

Reform may—indeed, must—eventually come. But in the meantime it is important to remember the essential character of the North Korean regime. The Kim family empire’s power is built upon a comprehensive system of pervasive discrimination and repression built on social classification, through which entire extended families are punished for an individual’s transgressions. Like Stalin’s Soviet Union, Kim’s North Korea is a gulag state, with citizens facing punishment and death for any number of transgressions. For decades Pyongyang even turned kidnapping into state policy, both enticing and forcing other peoples into what probably is the worst, most brutally repressive system on earth.

Kim Jong-un likes basketball. Unfortunately, that does not make him a reformer, but only a dictator who happens to like basketball.