When Philadelphia music promoter Sean Agnew walked into a stadium packed with 12,000 people, during a recent strange but enlightening trip to North Korea, he says he heard a very unusual thing.
Walking into a basketball game in the United States, fans expect to hear a cacophony of music, cheering and talking. When Philadelphia music promoter Sean Agnew walked into a North Korean stadium packed with 12,000 people, during a recent strange but enlightening trip, he heard a very unusual thing.
“There was no noise,” Agnew siad. “Basically, everyone’s sitting on their hands. No one’s talking. You could hear every word the Americans were saying on the court. Basically, you could hear a pin drop.”
Agnew was at the Pyongyang stadium to watch the Korean all-star team square off against a team of American players, including organizer Dennis Rodman. The former Bulls star, nicknamed ‘The Worm,’ has long been known for his liberal use of hair dye and physical play on the court. He’s recently gained attention for a relationship he’s developed with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Just a normal basketball game … ?
Agnew said the appearance of Kim brought the silence to a sudden end.
“Kim Jong Un walks in, and it’s 15 minutes of the craziest, loudest standing ovation ever,” Agnew said. “He pretty much was gesturing with his hands to sit down — ‘No, enough, enough.'”
Agnew said he had long wanted to go to North Korea to experience the isolated country for himself. When he was offered the chance to go there and see the game as well, he jumped at the chance. Agnew’s a basketball fan, but he’s better known as the owner of R-5 Productions, which sets up concerts in Philly.
He said at the game in North Korea, the on-the-court action was pretty typical. But off the court, things got strange.
“We were about 100 feet from Kim Jong Un, and him and Rodman were smoking non-stop. Looked like they were having fun,” Angew said. “Rodman had tons of cigars. Kim Jong Un was smoking cigarettes.”
The pair stuck out. Agnew said no one else was smoking in the stadium, so a cloud of tobacco smoke hovered above the duo.
‘A mission for good’
On the last night of the trip, Agnew finally got his chance to interact with the Rodman. At the hotel bar, which he said served two kinds of beer — yellow and black — he was able to speak with the controversial character.
“Dennis Rodman was by himself at a table. So a group of us went up and started talking with him and ended up hanging out with him for probably like an hour and a half or so,” he said.
While the former NBA player came across as a strange guy, Agnew said he seemed genuine.
“He really believed he was there on a cultural mission and that things would get better and that he was trying to make a difference and that this was a mission for good,” he said.
Some of the discussion was about politics, Agnew said, but most of it was about life and basketball. He said he really believes Rodman went to North Korea to try to bring the two nations together.
Agnew said that he didn’t enter into the trip to the notoriously repressive country blindly.
“I’m not going to say it was a fun time because I’m obviously — you’re in, basically, a military regime country,” Agnew said.
Even though he knows North Korea isn’t a “fun tourist destination,” Agnew said he wanted to go to see what he could first hand. Most outsiders know little about the insular country aside from news reports about its human rights abuses and political prison camps.
“It was just more to see in person the most isolated place in the world and to see the cult of personality with the leaders in person — to see just how it functions and to see what stories are old wives tales that float around about North Korea,” he said. “Which ones are true, what’s not true.”
Agnew said he hopes all the recent media attention about the North Korean trip will draw more Americans’ attention to what’s happening in that country.
Now back in Philly, he summed up his experience: “It had the added bonus of I’m a super big basketball fan. So North Korea plus basketball equals a super — well, I don’t know about a super great time, but at least a super-interesting, weird, unusual time.”