Former NBA star Dennis Rodman is back — back in North Korea, that is, and this time he’s taking along some friends. Rodman, who palled around with DPRK dictator Kim Jong-un not long after he ascended to his position of hereditary rule, brought some of his former NBA colleagues to play exhibitions in the tyrannical “people’s republic.” Rodman told an AP reporter on his way to Pyongyang that North Korea “is not bad,” all evidence to the contrary:

Rodman calls the game his version of “basketball diplomacy.”

“My previous travels have allowed me to feel the enthusiasm and warmth of fans,” Rodman said. “The positive memories and smiles on the faces of the children and families are a testament to the great efforts we have put into fulfilling our mission wherever we go voiding any politics. We are all looking forward to arriving in Pyongyang, meeting the citizens, visiting various charities and using the opportunity to develop new relationships that result in our annual return.”

Basketball diplomat, or (in Cold War terminology) a “useful idiot”? If it’s the latter, he’s found a few kindred intellects:

Rodman leads a team that includes former NBA All-Stars Kenny Anderson, Cliff Robinson, and Vin Baker. Craig Hodges, Doug Christie and Charles D. Smith are on the team, as well. They will play against a top North Korean Senior National team on Wednesday, marking North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s birthday.

AP, via USA Today, notes this carefully:

Rodman is the highest profile American to meet Kim since the leader inherited power after his father died in late 2011.

That’s a thinly-veiled insult to Kim rather than a flattering description of Rodman, by the way, whose only profile-lifter in years has been his visits to Pyongyang. Still, the question here is who’s the player, and who’s being played.  A diplomat would use his influence to change conditions in a tyranny and the brutal oppression that takes place.  A useful idiot would be used to tell the world that those conditions are “not bad” in order to help the tyrant continue his oppression.

Here’s a quick refresher course on that scorecard from a former guest at Kim’s labor camp, penned just before Christmas:

I want to tell you about myself. I was born in 1982 in Camp 14, a political prison in the mountains of North Korea. For more than 50 years, Kim Jong Un, his father and his grandfather have used prisons such as Camp 14 to punish, starve and work to death people who the regime decides are a threat. Prisoners are sent to places like Camp 14 without trial and in secret. A prisoner’s “crime” can be his relation by blood to someone the regime believes is a wrongdoer or wrong-thinker. My crime was to be born as the son of a man whose brother fled to South Korea in the 1950s.

You can see satellite pictures of Camp 14 and four other labor camps on your smartphone. At this very moment, people are starving in these camps. Others are being beaten, and someone soon will be publicly executed as a lesson to other prisoners to work hard and obey the rules. I grew up watching these executions, including the hanging of my mother. …

Mr. Rodman, I cannot presume to tell you to cancel your trip to North Korea. It is your right as an American to travel wherever you wish and to say whatever you want. It is your right to drink fancy wines and enjoy yourself in luxurious parties, as you reportedly did in your previous trips to Pyongyang. But as you have a fun time with the dictator, please try to think about what he and his family have done and continue to do. Just last week, Kim Jong Un ordered the execution of his uncle. Recent satellite pictures show that some of the North’s labor camps, including Camp 14, may be expanding. The U.N. World Food Programme says four out of five North Koreans are hungry. Severe malnutrition has stunted and cognitively impaired hundreds of thousands of children. Young North Korean women fleeing the country in search of food are often sold into human-trafficking rings in China and beyond.

I am writing to you, Mr. Rodman, because, more than anything else, I want Kim Jong Un to hear the cries of his people. Maybe you could use your friendship and your time together to help him understand that he has the power to close the camps and rebuild the country’s economy so everyone can afford to eat.

No dictatorship lasts forever. Freedom will come to North Korea someday. When it does, my wish is that you will have, in some way, helped bring about change. I end this letter in the hope that you can use your friendship with the dictator to be a friend to the North Korean people.

Not bad? Hey, at least uncle-killings are expected to decline in 2014. That’s a start, huh?

Update: My cousin Nick Emmons, a anchor for WHDH in Boston, noted this tweet from CNN’s Anderson Cooper:

What does that say about the NBA has-beens who followed him to Pyongyang?