The Sad Backstory of North Korea's First Basketball Diplomat

Dennis Rodman's epic CNN meltdown on Jan. 7 -- in which he implicitly defended North Korea's continued imprisonment of American citizen Kenneth Bae -- may be the lowest point in his confused "basketball diplomacy" crusade.

The former basketball star is currently in North Korea with six other NBA veterans to play in a charity ball game that doubles as a birthday present for Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. Though Rodman has vacillated on whether this trip has diplomatic undertones, it's fair to say that his efforts at fostering goodwill have accomplished little more than stir controversy. Since his first visit to the pariah state last February, Rodman has taken a lot of heat for his friendship with the North Korean dictator. His December visit, a scouting mission just days after Kim executed his uncle, similarly raised eyebrows.

Of course, Rodman isn't the first to attempt basketball diplomacy between North Korea and the United States -- and he won't be the first to fail. That dubious honor belongs to Ri Myung Hun, a 7-ft., 8-in. tall North Korean who, in 1998, nearly became the first Asian in the NBA.

According to Twitter, the two would-be ambassadors have been been hanging together in Pyongyang -- exchanging stories, one hopes, about the difficulties of mixing sports and politics. Ri's is certainly a sad one.

In 1998, the center was recruited by an American scout. He flew to Canada, changed his name to Michael Ri, after his favorite player, Michael Jordan, and was soon being courted by teams all over the country. But his dream of joining the NBA was foiled by the State Department, which decided that signing Ri would violate the Trading with the Enemy Act, which bars U.S. companies from doing business with North Korea.

Soon after, Ri told CNN: "The NBA agreed for me to play, so did the U.S. Commerce Department.... But the State Department waited for six months, and then said no. They wanted to use me for political purposes. So I just gave up."

Two years later, the State Department reversed its decision, allowing Ri to play in America. But, evidently, that didn't go over so well with former dictator Kim Jong Il, who "was insulted by the previous rebuff and retracted his 7-foot-8½-inch olive branch."

In North Korea, Ri was honored with a position in the military (he is popularly known as the super tall soldier at Kim Jong Il's funeral) and a place on the DPRK national team. He's now retired which means, among other things, that he doesn't have to deal with Kim Jong Un's weird, made-up basketball rules.

Incidentally, in 2001, Michael Jordan was tapped to make a goodwill trip to Pyongyang but his management team -- perhaps wisely -- declined.


These 70-Year-Old Nazi Hunters Just Took on France's Most Hated Comedian -- and Won

It looks like Europe's most famous Nazi-hunting family is back at it again, and this time, they're going after a different kind of opponent: the controversial French-Cameroonian comedian Dieudonné Mbala-Mbala, who most recently made headlines after French soccer star Nicolas Anelka used the comedian's trademark gesture, widely interpreted as a Nazi salute -- a reverse "Heil Hitler"-- and ignited a debate about anti-Semitism across Europe.

Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, a married couple now both in their seventies, have made a name for themselves over the past half-century going after Nazi war criminals who have escaped persecution. And though their Nazi-hunting days are over, along with their son, Arno, they called for a protest of a performance by Dieudonné in the French city of Nantes. On Jan. 7, a day before the planned show, the Nantes authorities announced that it was cancelled, making Nantes the third city after Bordeaux and Marseille to ban the comedian. French President François Hollande has also called on city authorities to prohibit Dieudonné's one-man show. 

Not that Dieudonné is going quietly. He enjoys the cover of comedy, huge success, and a fan base that is fiercely loyal to his shocking on-stage antics. Most of his shows at his regular Paris theater are sold out; his YouTube videos get millions of hits.

Since 2000, the comedian has been fined 65,000 euros for defamation, using insulting language, hate speech, and discrimination. On Friday, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls vowed to ensure that the comedian would have to pay the fines, which he has reportedly evaded thus far by placing his assets in his wife's name. "[Dieudonné] unites anti-Semites from all sides. They are Islamists, ultra-left or far-right.... His shows are anti-Semitic political rallies," Arno Klarsfeld told Agence France Press.

But though it's Dieudonné who's getting all the attention, it's the Klarsfelds who are far more interesting. They belong to a small club of professional Nazi hunters -- men and women who have dedicated their lives to tracing World War II criminals and bringing them to justice. And though they never quite reached the fame of the charismatic Simon Wiesenthal, the Klarsfelds' Nazi-hunting tactics have made them a subject of many a front-page headline over the years, landed them in court, and provoked attempts on their lives -- including a bomb placed in their car in 1979.

The star-crossed lovers -- Beate, a daughter of a Wermacht soldier, and Serge, whose father had perished in a concentration camp -- met in 1960. Their lifelong mission to track down Nazis began soon after.

In 1968, Beate famously slapped in the face Chancellor Kurt Kiesenger, a former Nazi who rose to power in post-war Germany. In 1973, Serge walked up to Kurt Lischka, a prominent SS commander and Gestapo chief and put a gun against his head. Eventually, Lischka was sentenced to 10 years in prison for war crimes. In their most famous hunt, after a failed attempt to kidnap Klaus Barbie, a Lyon Gestapo chief who was hiding in Bolivia, the Klarsfelds succeeded in tracking him down, getting him extradited to France and tried.

Since, Nazi hunting has become the family business. Since the 1980s, Serge and Beate have been working with their children Arno and Lida, both lawyers. (Arno, former aide to Nicolas Sarkozy and, perhaps awkwardly, ex-boyfriend of Carla Bruni, has been making headlines of his own, and has even been called a "darling of the French tabloids"). In one case, three members of the Nazi-hunting family presented evidence against a former war criminal.

The Klarsfelds have been widely recognized for being unrelenting in their mission to bring former Nazis to justice. On Jan. 1, Serge and Beate were named grand officer and commander of the French Legion of Honor, respectively.

The matriarch of the family, and arguably also its most daring member -- she had been arrested in at least 11 countries -- was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the state of Israel twice (the Klarsfelds are also known for being fiercely Zionist). In 1986, she was portrayed by Farah Fawcett in a TV film "The Beate Klarsfeld Story."

The Klarsfelds, who were both small children during World War II, are significantly younger than their Nazi prey. As nature took its course, and the only remaining Nazis became low-level prison guards -- now decrepit nonagenarians -- they adapted their lifelong mission. Today they focus on commemorating the fate of Jewish deportees from France and working with their children. In 2009, they told the BBC that after five decades, their hunt was over. 

And yet, just five years later, Dieudonné's anti-Semitic comedy and the rise in Nazi gestures on the soccer field have brought them back from retirement. With little effort, they've already made a popular comedian's life much harder. Dieudonné, brace yourself for a tough fight.