Now that Dennis Rodman is home, how many Washington policymakers are bitter that they didn't get to be the first American to meet Kim Jong-un?
John Kerry is perhaps one, joining a chorus of critics jabbing at the NBA hall of famer.
"Dennis Rodman was a great basketball player," the secretary of state told NBC. "And as a diplomat, he is a great basketball player. And that's where we'll leave it."
The defense Rodman mounted in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos on Monday wasn't exactly eloquent. "Guess what? Don't hate me," was his awkward conclusion after a minute of stumbling over his claim that Bill Clinton's sex scandal is comparable to North Korean prison camps.
(Watch Now: Dennis Rodman Courting North Korea?)
But look past the bumbling, and it's possible that the seemingly clueless Rodman is part of a grander, gradual change that State Department bureaucrats have been trying — and failing — to achieve for two decades. He's the latest in a line of artists, musicians, scientists and athletes to visit this "hermit state," helping to open the Asian dictatorship to the world.
So far, Nate Thayer of NK News has published the most thorough account, explaining how the Kim dynasty came to love basketball. Kim Jong-il had an affinity for the sport during the height of the popularity of the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, pushing his son to inherit the hobby.
North Korea is even home to the world's tallest basketball player, Michael Ri, and the sport occasionally fuels international exchange. In June 2012, Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based tour agency, also took a group of players — though not as well-known as the Harlem Globetrotters — to train children.
But basketball isn't the only channel of informal diplomacy exploited by a country facing the heaviest sanctions — and diplomatic isolation — in the world.
North Korea occasionally invites foreign music virtuosos, whom the White House has been dismissive toward, too. In 2008, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra brought some 300 foreigners to a concert in Pyongyang, where it performed the American and North Korean national anthems, along with the Korean folk song "Arirang."
But the administration of George W. Bush brushed off the concert, just as Kerry did to Rodman's visit this week. Former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino clarified that the administration saw the concert as just a concert, and not a diplomatic "coup."
This week, right after Rodman departed, the prominent Japanese conductor Michiyoshi Inoue landed. On Friday, he'll be the first conductor to lead the state symphony in a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor. North Koreans will be able to watch it on television.
In the 1980s, North Korea even harbored Yun Isang, a dissident South Korean pianist who lived in exile in Germany thanks to persecution by the Seoul military regime. Yun hoped that by engaging North Korea with music, he could promote the cause of reunification.
And let's not forget Google chairman Eric Schmidt's visit in January. Kim Jong-un has prioritized technology, along with sports, as a part of national development. But the State Department passed off that one too, with spokeswoman Victoria Nuland lamenting that the visit wasn't "helpful."