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What if, instead of leaving North Korea today, Dennis Rodman didn't make it out and was instead thrown into a prison camp by the country's erratic young dictator Kim Jong-un? And what if two brave Wire bloggers had to save him? 

Rodman didn't get a chance to see Kim Jong-un on this particular trip.  But he told CNN International after he landed Monday in Beijing, "I'm not worried about it. I'll see him again. I will be coming back in another week." He's there to coach a basketball game on January 8 that's being played in honor of the Supreme Leader's birthday. We sincerely wish Rodman safe travels, but this is the same Kim Jong-un who just ordered his own uncle's execution. Is it that hard to imagine a falling out between a 30-year-old playboy autocrat and a washed up NBA veteran best known for his colorful hair dye and briefly dating Madonna? Sure, it's a hypothetical, but one that interested us enough that, using a few guidelines below, we tried to come up with a plan for rescuing Rodman, drawing primarily from our experience of watching movies and making things up. Then, we checked with experts to see if our strategy makes any sense.

We learned two things. One, if you're ever imprisoned in a hostile country, do not turn to bloggers for your rescue because their plan will almost certainly fail and the bloggers will probably join you in that prison camp. Two, Dennis Rodman ought be on his best behavior in the Hermit Kingdom, since if he finds himself in prison, he's not going anywhere anytime soon. 

The Scenario

In North Korea to teach the country's basketball team how to play, Dennis Rodman somehow falls out of favor with the country's quixotic leader Kim Jong-un and is arrested and transported to Hwaseong prison camp, Camp 16,  in the mountainous northeastern corner of the country. Paddy Power, the Irish gambling site that is sponsoring Rodman's visit, decides to spare no expense in rescuing Rodman and — for inexplicable reasons — calls The Wire, asking us to lead the raid with an unlimited line of credit. But the rescue needs to happen as soon as possible, in the depths of the North Korean winter.

The Region

The Experts

After we took a crack at planning our own mission, we reached out to experts to compare notes (they were not impressed by our tactics) and ask what they would do. Our warroom includes:

  • Survival skills. Mykel Hawke. Star of The Travel Channel's Lost Survivors, survival instructor at SpecOps, Inc.
  • Tactical operations. "Jack Quinn." Former Army Ranger and Delta Force Operator. (This is a pseudonym; he asked that his name be withheld.)
  • Korean culture. Charles K. Armstrong. Professor of Korean Studies, Columbia University. Armstrong has made half a dozen trips to North Korea.
  • Chinese culture. Abe Sauer. Writer and expatriate resident of China.

We call our mission: Operation Roddy Piper.

There are three phases to it. Infilitration, in which we enter North Korea and travel to the prison camp where Rodman is being held. The rescue phase involves freeing Rodman. And lastly the exfilitration and extraction phase,  in which we make our escape.

Below are the final plans for each phase. You can click the gray tabs to toggle between our best guess and then read what real experts had to say. And, to any kids out there reading this: Do not try either of these rescue plans at home.



Philip: The main question is: how do we get into North Korea with the things we need to rescue Rodman. At a minimum, those "things" are ourselves, some sorts of tools, I assume, food, and so on. The country's southern border with South Korea is airtight. The northern border is porous, but leads to China or Russia. We can arrive by air or sea, but we risk being seen doing so. And, in the case of air, we risk being shot down after being detected by radar. So I think: sea landing, with material.

Elle: Orbitz won't let me book a commercial flight to Pyongyang.

Philip: You were thinking, what, we get off the plane and ask where Rodman is?

Elle: The Wikitravel page says people fly in through Beijing on Air Koryo, the North Korean airline. I think we go in as tourists.

Philip: But if we come in as tourists, we'll have a minder. How would we get to the prison camp?

Elle: Say we're staying with a North Korean, then we can walk around without a minder.

Philip: I'm not sure that's how it works. Did you read something that said Americans could come in and hang out with North Koreans without the government caring? That seems unlikely.

Elle: Breaking out is going to be the hard part. Why not make getting in smooth?

Philip: Explain what happens when we land.

Elle: We get in, we go to our safe house, we get our bearings, talk to our sources, lie low, act like tourists. Get ready for the real operation.

Philip: What is "our safe house"? It seems as though some important details are missing, and given that we are partners in this, I'd like a little more info.

Elle: Well, like yeah, we'd have to arrange all that stuff.

Philip: Oh, okay. How do we get from Pyongyang to the safe house.

Elle: Any option will require a lot of planning.

Philip: Yes, correct. Fine. So this is your final plan: We fly into Pyongyang via China and figure it out.

Elle: I just think charm and bribes will be more fun and less lethal to you and me than guns blazing from minute one.

Philip: Did I say guns blazing? I said stealth.

Elle: I didn't realize we have to list every detail of every plan right now! How does the magic stealth happen? How far can you swim in the ocean in winter at night? I'm a great ocean swimmer and I can tell you the answer for me is: not far.

Philip: "I'm a great ocean swimmer." Cool. So why don't you want to swim?

Elle: Because I know how hard it is, especially in the cold, or if the current is against you, or if you're wearing heavy stuff instead of a swimsuit. Imagine how much harder it would be with shoes, not to mention guns. The salt makes it easier to float because of the body's fat content. That's not true of metal objects like guns.

Philip: Fine.

[ View experts' plan ]


The blue pin marks a possible entry point. Orange, Camp 16. The red point is a possible exit point.



Philip: So we are in North Korea, either with a bunch of material that we've carried into the country via a stealthy boat landing (involving a little swimming) or by magically transporting from a guarded hotel in Pyongyang. We're in the vicinity of Rodman's prison. Or, I guess — we need to figure out where he is, first?

Elle: Let's just assume that from the news we find out he's in one of the political prisons, like Camp 16.

Philip: Fine. We are in the vicinity of that camp. Now what.

Elle: Well, I googled "true life prison breaks" and found this listicle that said a guy in Greece escaped because his brother landed a helicopter in the prison yard. The guards just assumed it was an official visit from bureaucrats. This sounds like a good course of action for two bloggers such as ourselves. We get a helicopter, have it painted North Korean military colors. We pretend we're on official business for Kim... boom. Fly away. Rodman is ours.

Philip: Oooooookay. So. 1. We probably can't pass as North Korean officials. 2. We get a helicopter, how?

Elle: With our unlimited funds. That was our initial stipulation and I'm sticking with it. Perhaps we pose as Russian businessmen since we are both fair-haired. That would explain our need for a translator. Helicopter in from Russia.

Okay, maybe that wouldn't work. Maybe through China under the cover of nightfall? It's a mountainous area on the border.

Philip: Have you heard of radar.

Elle: Okay, maybe we truck in the helicopter in an 18-wheeler? Because China does trade with North Korea, plus there are smugglers for semi-secret private markets.

Philip: Are those smugglers Americans who don't speak Korean? What happens at the border? We drive up, and the North Korean guards, what, wave us through?

Elle: Yes. With bribes! Why don't you believe in capitalism, Bump? Is North Korea not a prime example of its power? No, no, we have a Korean fixer.

Philip: Oh, you're "joking."

Elle: No. I am not joking.

Philip: So here is my idea. Given that we've arrived via a boat that can carry, say, multiple people and large bags of gear: We tunnel. We'd need some intelligence on the ground to pinpoint Rodman's location, but this seems like the safest way to gain entry. Somehow I doubt the Korean prisons have tunnel detection mechanisms.

Elle: How are we going to dig a tunnel? Do you know how hard it is to dig things? You know the jokes about eight construction workers standing around watching one guy dig? That is because digging is really hard and you can't do it for eight hours straight. Especially if you're living in the woods and the ground is frozen because it is winter.

Philip: Remember how I said that we had other people with us? Those people will help. We will have whatever the best tools are for digging, maybe automated tools. Why do I have to explain how specifically we can sustain digging for hours when you get to just say, "Oh, we will drive a helicopter in, no bigs"?

Elle: It's no easier to sneak in all those people than to sneak in a helicopter on a truck at the border.

Philip: Of course it is! How is it not?

Elle: Think about the food, tools, plus like ventilation for the tunnel! Like pickaxes! This is in the mountains!

Philip: Why is that so hard? We have bags from the boat.

Elle: It's hard enough to train up to be international crimefighters, we don't have time to become John Henry, too.

Philip: Well, my other plan was to do a raid, but that requires shooting and/or military stuff that seems like it would go south pretty quickly.

Elle: I don't want to imagine us snapping necks, especially of starving teenage North Korean guards. I would prefer to be like the Wedding Crashers, but for North Korean gulags.

[ View experts' plan ]





Philip: So now, we've gotten Rodman (somehow) and we are making our escape. My theory: Get back to the coast, get in a boat, and go to Japan.

Elle: OK here, I think we're closer in agreement. Boat to Japan seems like the best option. Of course, I would prefer to helicopter to the boat, you, me, Dennis, our fixer, plus any poor guards we've bribed along the way.

Philip: Wait, wait, wait. OK. First, we cannot fly a helicopter around offshore.

Elle: Because of inclement weather?

Philip: North Korea certainly has air defense systems. And especially if we've just stolen Rodman, they'll be looking for us. Also: We're bringing guards with us now? How on Earth does that make sense?

Elle: I just feel sorry for the poor starving teenagers! They have no food!

Philip: I don't think they're all teenagers.

Elle: We can escape along mountainous backwoods to the coast near the border with Russia.

Philip: Great. Agreed. Then get to a small boat we stashed when we arrived, and then get to a contracted boat out in international waters.

Elle: It's too hard to get back over the border and take the bus to Laos and then Thailand.

Philip: Uh, yes. Sneaking Dennis Rodman through China seems like a bad idea.

Elle: One escape narrative I read said you could take the bus to Mongolia, but you have to cross the Gobi desert. But Mongolia would be sympathetic.

Philip: Why would that be better than Japan?

Elle: Well thats where our cover story as Russian businessmen comes in. We are Russian businessmen and we would like to do business!

Philip: Where is Dennis during this?

Elle: We have brought along this aging basketball star who is not Dennis Rodman, but another basketball star entirely. We have shaved off his green hair to help with the story.

Philip: So we also need to sneak in a razor.

[ View experts' plan ]

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