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Dennis Rodman distracts attention from North Korea's voiceless victims

Published: Thursday, Jan. 9 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Former NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman speaks to the media during a news conference in New York, Monday, Sept. 9, 2013. Rodman is going back to North Korea, and he says he will bring a team of former NBA players with him. Days after returning from his second trip to visit North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Rodman announced plans to stage two exhibition games there in January.

John Minchillo, Associated Press

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Dennis Rodman has done more to draw attention to North Korea than anyone since, perhaps, the crew of the USS Pueblo. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of attention that could be compared to a clown conference outside a homeless shelter — a sideshow that is a useless and damaging distraction.

Entertainers and other attention-getters (I’m not quite sure how to categorize the former basketball player) can do a lot of good when they use their talents to raise money and awareness. However, Rodman’s latest trip to North Korea, including his fawning rendition of “Happy birthday” to Kim Jong-Un and his infamous bow, would be the equivalent of having the celebrities who sang “We are the world” in 1985 donate the proceeds to African dictators, rather than famine relief.

Rodman and his team weren’t likely treated to a tour of the countryside outside Pyongyang, the capital city where Kim focuses most of his nation’s meager wealth. It’s difficult to get a true idea of what’s going on in the rest of the nation, although recent eyewitness accounts from defectors, some reporters and other visitors paint a dismal picture.

One defector, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals against family members still in North Korea, told CNN last spring, “My family had decided to commit suicide because for three days we didn’t have anything to eat. We decided to starve to death. We said let’s die.”

Instead, she escaped. She described how people collect grass and leaves to make soup each day.

Other visitors to the countryside say starvation isn’t obvious but that people seem to spend most of their time either collecting wood to stay warm or food to subsist. The National Nutrition Survey, funded by UNICEF, the World Food Program and the World Health Organization, found in 2012 that nutrition has improved since its previous survey in 2009. But that is kind of like saying the weather in the upper Midwest will be warmer today than the record cold a few days ago.

Chronic malnutrition still affects 27.9 percent of North Korean children, with nearly one-third of adult women suffering from anemia. Many of the children are permanently stunted.

Writing for usnews.com last year, Rick Newman summarized statistics about life in North Korea. Life expectancy has dropped by five years since the early 1980s, most people heat their homes with open fireplaces, and hospitals require patients to provide their own heat, make their own food at home and pay full cost for all their drugs, if they’re lucky enough to get any.

The same thing applies for education. Parents must provide a desk and chair and pay for heat as well as building materials. Workers can expect $2 to $3 a month, and many sell things on the side to get an additional $10 or so. But even at that they can’t keep up with inflation, which may be as high as 100 percent.

These figures are based on the best data available, but the hermit kingdom doesn’t allow much scrutiny. Things in fact could be much worse.

And efforts to describe life in North Korea can’t be complete without mentioning its notorious prison camps, where reports say inmates are sometimes forced to dig their own graves before being executed. One prisoner there is American Kenneth Bae, held for crimes against the state.

By contrast, Pyongyang is described as a place where the rich can get “everything from high heels to imported watches. They have bought enough cars in the past couple years to cause the occasional traffic jam,” according to a report by Tim Sullivan of the Associated Press.

That’s the North Korea Dennis Rodman glimpses on his silly little trips to see his dictator “friend for life.”

Americans are remarkably generous when made aware of the plight of the world’s poorest people. International heroes such as Muhammad Yunus work tirelessly to use market principles to help these people find better lives.

But North Korea’s poor are maddeningly beyond our reach. That’s why it’s so galling when a high-profile American finally gets a smidgen of influence and then chooses to distract the world from the voiceless people who need him the most.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his web site, www.jayevensen.com.

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