The kind of engagement that Rodman is pushing cannot always be seen as merely rewards for a naughty regime, as much as we appear locked into a carrot-and-stick way of thinking about relations with North Korea. It can be mutually beneficial. We have the potential to gain as much as they do. Breakthroughs might be sudden and surprising, but they are usually underpinned by creative thinking, dialogue and the mutual acceptance that no one can get exactly what they want.
Unfortunately, this particular trip does feel somewhat like a gift, coming as it does on Kim’s birthday and less than a month after the violent and very public purge of his uncle and second-in-charge, Jang Song Thaek.
Had Rodman pulled out or delayed, the channel for opening may well have closed. If he really is in it for the long haul, he probably couldn’t afford to slight the leader on his birthday.
Domestically, it is great PR for Kim. He gets to appear gregarious and inclusive in front of his people. Notwithstanding Jang’s execution, this is the image he has been assiduously cultivating. He’s eager to promote his friendly, approachable image while at the same time enjoying watching some former stars play his favorite sport.