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Asia

All sides profess desire for better inter-Korean relations

Dennis Rodman, Kim Jong Un and Park Geun-hye all have their own distinct approaches towards achieving a breakthrough in diplomatic relations on the Korean Peninsula. None of them seems destined to achieve that aim.

In the days leading up to the arrival in Pyongyang of Dennis Rodman, the former star of basketball courts across the United States, the leaders of both North and South Korea expressed their hopes that the divided peninsula might once again be reunited and that peace might descend on a single Korean people.

Both Park Geun-hye in Seoul and Kim Jong Un may very well be sincere in those wishes, but the insurmountable stumbling block remains the regime under which the nation would become one. Kim, inevitably, wants to extend his totalitarian grip to encompass all the wealth that the South's capitalism has generated while Park envisions a system of democracy and liberty that is beyond the understanding of most ordinary people in the North.

And while the heavily tattooed and pierced Rodman professes no political allegiances in a stalemate that has divided the Koreas ideologically since the end of World War II, he has in the past likened the basketball match that he has organized for January 8 - Kim's birthday - as a form of diplomacy.

Basketball through a net

Though his visits are controversial, Rodman hopes basketball will 'open doors'

"On the subject of the game, I hope it will open doors a little bit around the world, around the world, around the world," Rodman said in a press conference before his departure. "That's what I hope. But of course, everything else, that's not by job."

'I'm just an athlete'

"I'm not a president, I'm not a politician, I'm not an ambassador. I'm just an athlete, an individual who wants to go over there and play something for the world. That's it," he added.

But as he left the US on Monday and transited through Beijing before arriving in Pyongyang the following day, a player who was once known as The Worm preferred to play up his friendship with the dictator.

"People always say that North Korea is like a really communist country, that people are not allowed to go there," Rodman said. "I just know the fact that, you know, to me he's a nice guy, to me. Nice guy, you know. Whatever he does political-wise, that's not my job."

The US government and rights groups have dismissed Rodman's basketball match - billed as "The Big Bang in Pyongyang" - as little more than a stunt.

Shin Dong-hyk, the only person born in a North Korean labor camp to escape to the West, wrote an open letter to Rodman in the Washington Post asking him to use his influence with Kim to make him "hear the cries of his people."

A bottle of vodka with handmade illustrations of Rodman with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Rodman's name in Korean sits on the roof of a car outside a Pyongyang hotel on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014. (Photo: AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

Rodman arrived in North Korea on January 6 with a team of retired basketball players for the dictator's birthday on January 8

"I cannot presume to tell you to cancel your trip to North Korea," wrote Shin, the executive director of Inside NK. "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.

"I am writing to you, Mr. Rodman, because, more than anything else, I want Kim Jong Un to hear the cries of his people," Shin wrote.

Message unlikely to be delivered

It appears unlikely that Rodman will mention his host's appalling human rights record during his time in the North, which means efforts to build bridges and improve the lot of the average North Korean are back in the hands of the politicians.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (L) meets with former NBA star Dennis Rodman in Pyongyang, North Korea, on 07 September 2013, according to the regime's official Korean Central News Agency. The news wire said that they watched a friendly basketball game and had dinner together. The photo is released by the Rodong Sinmun, an organ of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea. (Photo: EPA/Rodong Sinmun)

Dennis Rodman has visited Kim Jong Un in North Korea three times before

"South Korea has a consistent policy of trying to engage with the North because they do not want the regime there to collapse or for civil war to break out," said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University.

"I think that every South Korean leader wants to be remembered not necessarily as the president who brought about reunification - that process will be a nightmare when it happens - but at least the leader who did something significant to build relations with Pyongyang," he told DW.

To that end, Park's proposal on Monday to resume reunions of families separated since the end of the Korean War in 1953 makes complete sense.

A revival of the reunions was close to fruition in September, until Pyongyang scrapped the event just days before the meeting on the grounds that the South had employed "hostile tactics that hurt our dignity and pride."

The reunions would be a fragile first step towards improved relations across the Demilitarized Zone, while Park also unveiled a longer-term blueprint for the reunification of the peninsula at a press conference in Seoul on Monday.

Positives of reunification

Dismissing the fears of many in the South that reunification would be cripplingly expensive and disruptive to the national economy, Park preferred to dwell on the positives and told reporters that reunification "would be a chance for the economy to make a huge leap."

Dennis Rodman, center, meets with former North Korean basketball player Ri Myung Hun at a practice session with USA and North Korean players in Pyongyang, North Korea on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014. Rodman came to the North Korean capital with a squad of USA basketball stars for an exhibition game on Jan. 8, the birthday of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon)

Rodman meets with former North Korean basketball player Ri Myung Hun in Pyongyang

For his part, Kim used his New Year's Day speech to propose efforts on both sides to repair the damaged ties between the two nations and to ease the military confrontation. Analysts pointed out that the terms Kim used in the speech were less aggressive and critical of the South than in previous years. But few are convinced this is little more than North Korea putting on a face.

"It's just lip-service," said Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo's Waseda University and an authority on North Korean affairs.

"Kim doesn't really believe his own words in that speech, but North Korea needs outside aid and investment. The best way of achieving that is to restart the dialogue with the South, even if they have no intention of following through on any promises that they make.

"It's almost ceremonial, and we are stuck with the situation that we have on the peninsula today until the regime in the North collapses," he said. "And no-one knows how soon or how far off that might be."

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