South Korea and the United States should take a recent visit by flamboyant retired NBA star Dennis Rodman to North Korea “seriously” because it appears to signal a renewed engagement with both Seoul and Washington, a former U.S. ambassador to Seoul said Tuesday.
In an interview with Yonhap News Agency in Seoul, Donald Gregg said a “call me” message from North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un to U.S. President Barack Obama, relayed by Rodman, is a “very powerful signal to engage with us.”
Rodman, who became the most high-profile American to have met the North’s Kim and dined with him, returned from Pyongyang on Sunday and told ABC’s “This Week” program that Kim is not seeking to start a war and wants a call from Obama.
“It’s time for a fresh start. This crazy basketball player came back and was interviewed by ABC News and asked what’s Kim Jong-un’s message and Rodman says ‘call me,’” Gregg said.
“That’s a very powerful signal to engage with us,” said Gregg, who served as U.S. ambassador to South Korea between 1989 and 1993 after more than three decades of service in the CIA with a focus on Asia.
Gregg said the “call me” message from the North’s Kim to Obama is being interpreted as “I want to talk with you.”
Describing Rodman as a “crazy, but magnificent and smart athlete,” Gregg urged South Korea and the U.S. to “take it (Kim’s message) seriously.”
The U.S. government has denied any connection to the visit by Rodman to North Korea, where the former NBA star was working on a documentary about basketball.
In Washington on Monday, acting State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said, “Dennis Rodman has never been a player in our diplomacy. He does not represent the views of the United States.”
“We have direct channels of communications with the DPRK. They know how to get in touch with us,” Ventrell said.
“Instead of spending their money on staging sporting events, the North Korean regime should focus on the well-being of its people, and it should come in line with its international obligations,” Ventrell said. “Quite frankly, North Korean words and stunts such as this have no meaning.” Rodman’s meeting with Kim comes amid heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula as South Korea and the U.S. are pushing for tougher sanctions to punish North Korea for conducting its third nuclear test on Feb. 12.
Gregg insisted that dialogue and engagement are the best way to deal with North Korea.
“I think you have to take that test in a broad context of what signals they are sending to us,” Gregg said of the North’s third nuclear test. “Whether they are trying to threaten us or whether they are trying to get us to engage in dialogue.”
“So, it’s a very, very fluid situation and what we need to do is to avoid to falling into demonization of North Korea,” he said.
“I think Kim Jong-un is consolidating his position in the North by moving toward building nuclear capacity,” Gregg said. (Yonhap News)