Pistachios and purges: Will Kim Jong Un go nuts over Dennis Rodman ad?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets "friend for life" and former NBA star Dennis Rodman in September. Rodong Sinmun via EPA

News analysis

When Dennis Rodman visits dictator Kim Jong Un in North Korea next week, he’ll probably be hoping his “friend for life” has not seen his latest commercial.

The Wonderful Pistachios ad features the former NBA star sitting at a table with a Kim look-a-like. Lifting a nut from a bowl, Rodman says: "The secret to world peace ... is pistachios." Kim then presses a red button and Rodman explodes, leaving just the remnants of the nut on his seat at which point Kim smiles and claps.

The quirky commercial was released in September, just after Rodman's most recent visit to North Korea, and before the country's latest purges, but could easily be seen as an unintended parody of Kim's way of dealing with political opponents.

The few North Koreans who have watched the commercial are not amused about the depiction of their leader, a regular visitor to the country told NBC News.

"They just don't think its funny," said the source, who asked not to be identified amid fear of reprisals.

Experts believe a power struggle may be under way in Pyongyang.

This week saw the very public removal from power of Kim's uncle and the North's number two leader, Jang Song-Thaek - who was dragged from his chair during a meeting in Pyongyang.

Jang was quickly airbrushed from official pictures and edited out of a documentary broadcast on state television (though not replaced with a pistachio).


Two of Jang's aides were reportedly killed in a spate of public executions and Kim has already removed several senior aging generals.

After his last visit to Pyongyang, Rodman angrily rounded on reporters who questioned his relationship with the North Korean leader, who succeeded his late father Kim Jong Il in 2011.

"He's my friend for life,” he said. “I don't care what you guys think," though even the former basketball star might now concede that his friend - "an awesome guy" - is displaying a dangerously erratic and ruthless streak.

Rodman is returning to the country to prepare for a series of exhibition basketball games, culminating in a showdown against the North Korean national team to mark Kim's birthday on Jan. 8 (when he'll be 30 or possibly 31 years old). Rodman says about a dozen former NBA stars will be travelling to Pyongyang to take part.

They may hope for a speedier return than 85-year-old Merrill Newman, who was detained for more than a month in North Korea after being accused of "hostile acts." The Korean War veteran was freed on Saturday after being coerced into a "confession" and apology.

Though Rodman has boasted of his "cordial" conversations with the young Kim, he may prefer this time to steer clear of the subject of Uncle Jang, who was dismissed, in part, for allegedly leading what the North's official news agency described as a "dissolute and depraved life."

Rodman depicts Kim as a regular, fun-loving sort of guy. But he presides over a pathologically paranoid regime.

One story that regularly does the diplomatic rounds in Pyongyang is about the opening of the Australian Embassy some years ago. The Australians celebrated by throwing a toga party. There weren't many diplomats in the city back then, and very few cars, so the sight of the (tiny) foreign community criss-crossing the place wrapped in white sheets, generated massive suspicion.

The authorities could never quite figure out what was happening, but there was one thing about which they were certain - it was a conspiracy. The Embassy was promptly closed.

The story has no doubt been embellished over years of telling. But he contemplates the next installment of his self-styled "basketball diplomacy," Rodman might be well advised to leave the pistachios at home.