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Even murderous dictators hell-bent on amassing nukes need a hobby, and for Kim Jong Un, it's basketball. But his well-documented superfandom recently found some unusual expression: He requested “famous basketball players” be sent to North Korea as part of his nuclear negotiations with the U.S.
Citing two unnamed U.S. officials, ABC News reported Thursday that the request was made in writing and that, at one point, North Korean officials “insisted that it be included in the joint statement on denuclearization.”
The request came ahead of the February summit between Kim and President Donald Trump in Hanoi — where Trump walked away when Kim wouldn’t agree to full denuclearization. In recent days, tensions have ramped up as Kim fired three missiles.
The basketball request amid serious talks about normalizing relations between the two countries might seem strange, but it lines up squarely with Kim’s history.
Like many sports fans, he inherited his passion for basketball from his father. Kim Jong Il was apparently obsessed with the game and shared the sporting world’s thrall with Michael Jordan in the ‘90s, purportedly boasting a video library of nearly every Chicago Bulls game featuring His Airness. The elder Kim was even gifted with a Jordan-signed ball from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
“He may have been initially surprised by it, but you could tell he was pleased. I don't think he expected it. It was a very personal gesture, in a sense," Albright told the Washington Post in 2013. “It showed him we went through some effort to get the signature. They realized it wasn't just an ordinary ball.”
The younger Kim revered Jordan, too. An NK News article from 2013 reported that Kim Jong Il built basketball courts at their residences for his sons to play on, — that Kim Jong Un had Michael Jordan posters tacked up in his room when he was in school in Switzerland. Classmates from Kim’s time there told NK News that he wore Nikes and played often — and even if he wasn’t skilled, he was “fiercely competitive.”
“He was very explosive. He could make things happen. He was the play-maker,” classmate Nikola Kovacevic told NK News in 2013. That reads like a description of 2019 Russell Westbrook, but nope… that’s about North Korea's Supreme Leader.
Kim’s love for basketball has continued while in power. Most notably, his friendship with former Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman. The two connected in 2013 (along with some Vice journalists) at a Harlem Globetrotters exhibition game in North Korea and have since met on a number of occasions. At times, Rodman has promoted the idea of "basketball diplomacy" while often it seems his relationship with Kim isn’t political at all.
But basketball might continue to be a part of the equation when it comes to North Korea and the U.S.’s relationship. ABC News reported that while “cultural exchanges are typical, some negotiators were surprised by Kim's enthusiasm” for the recent request to be sent basketball players.
Cover: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves upon his arrival at Vietnam's Dong Dang railway station on March 2, 2019. Kim traveled through the town on the Chinese border en route to North Korea from Hanoi, where he held a second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump. (Kyodo via AP Images) ==Kyodo