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In October 1988, a ten-year-old girl named Sarah York traveled to Panama to meet with her Panamanian pen pal, the infamous military leader Manuel Noriega. Noriega was widely known in the United States as a corrupt leader who was later tried by the United States for drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering. There were also widespread claims that the Panamanian military, under Noriega’s command, engaged in widespread human rights abuses and harassment of US troops and civilians.
Sarah York’s continued visits and correspondence with Noriega were met with widespread disapproval at the time, by a public and political atmosphere that considered Noriega “Public Enemy Number One” at the time of the U.S. invasion of Panama. However, Ms. York and her family emerged with a very different account of this supposedly ruthless dictator, a unique point of view in the midst of highly biased coverage. While it can be argued that Ms. York was at a highly impressionable stage of her life and that Noriega was simply using her for political gain, the perspective was important in creating discourse.
On March 3, 2013, retired American Hall of Fame professional basketball player Dennis Rodman returned to the U.S. after a highly controversial trip to North Korea where he met and engaged directly with dictator Kim Jong Un. Rodman, nicknamed “The Worm,” returned with praise for Kim, saying “I love him. The guy’s awesome. He was so honest.” Many outlets are considerably and understandably critical of Rodman’s visit, which has been described as a lavish celebration of basketball greats filled with copious amounts of food and drink. These festivities stand in stark contrast to the millions of North Koreans in conditions of famine, under-nutrition, and general food insecurity.
Rodman’s visit sheds some light onto a country we typically discuss in tones of either indignant condemnation or hushed mystery. We often underestimate the power of appealing to the human side of these mysterious figures. Rodman’s role was not and should not be as a diplomat or another U.S. sanctioned political figure. He attended not as a representative or ambassador of our country, but as a well-known basketball great playing along with a media ploy by the company “Vice” and the Harlem Globetrotters. He emerged with insights on the dictator and his personal life that not even our C.I.A. could profess to know, and that’s a tactic we forget to consider. There is nobody at the C.I.A. who could tell you more personally about Kim Jong Un than Dennis Rodman, and that in itself is scary.
We’re all human, and so we have public and private lives. People are different from the sensationalist depictions our media tends to feed us, and it thus becomes more important than ever to garner as many perspectives as possible. This is in no way a defense of the North Korean regime—the atrocities of prison camps and seemingly lack of regard for its citizens are inexcusable. However, it is important to understand that we all come from different upbringings and value systems; what Kim is doing (or not doing) is definitely wrong, but we need to understand why his imperial regime has been doing this, what the motivations are and the cultural biases that make him believe what he is doing is acceptable in any way. From a nationalistic point of view, North Korea is terrified of the super powers of the West that stand against them. It builds up its nuclear program and weapons because we have a far greater stockpile of nuclear weapons on our side. It is hard for us to judge unless we are there.
Rodman should not be prohibited from future visits to North Korea. In fact, he should be encouraged to do so and to share his experience, biased or not. His first visit and the ensuing public outcry will give him exposure to the public side of Kim, the dictator that we have grown to revile, but Rodman will be able also to provoke a new type of conversation about North Korea.
So while the Rodman-Kim friendship may not be as deep as Rodman professes from his two day visit, it is a hopeful step towards gaining insight into a country and a man we know little about. Our media has built a perception of Kim as a power-hungry, emotionless dictator. And while the regimes and human rights abuses of Kim and his predecessors should be strongly condemned, it is also important to recognize Kim as only human. The man is not a myth or a legend, and we should not treat him as such.
Kathy Wang ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Pforzheimer House.
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