BEIJING - If peace breaks out someday between the United States and North Korea, could "The Worm" go down in history as a statesmen who opened the door to the thaw in relations?
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un told former NBA star Dennis Rodman he hoped a "sports exchange would be activated" to promote mutual understanding between his country and the United States, according to KCNA, the state news agency better known for issuing threats against America rather than offers of handshakes.
The offer to Rodman, who visited Pyongyang with three members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, came during a banquet, the news agency said.
U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell refused to comment on "a private trip by a private individual" and instead spoke of the "provocative action" Pyongyang took in carrying out a nuclear test last month.
However, some in Seoul hoped the U.S. government and private organizations would react positively to the offer. In the North's reclusive society, Kim's offer was a way of sending a message not just on sports.
"It's not going to be like 'ping-pong diplomacy,' which led to the opening of China," said Tong Kim, an international relations expert at Korea University in Seoul, alluding to the exchange of ping-pong players between the U.S. and the People's Republic of China in the 1970s that led to a historic visit to Beijing by President Richard Nixon.
The North won't budge on "what they insist upon as their own sovereign right to nuclear weapons and their ballistic missile program," he said. "But it shows North Korea seeks an opportunity to re-engage the USA."
Kim's public displays of friendliness with Rodman, including a hug broadcast on state-controlled media, shows "'we are good guys too, let's get along,'" Tong said. And it may have been meant in the North's rather bizarre view as a message to another African-American.
"They want to show (President Obama) there's no racial discrimination in Korea," Tong says. "That's long been their fundamental approach - 'we will be good to any country that is good to us'."
Paik Hak Soon, a North Korea expert at Sejong Institute, a private think-tank in Seongnam, South Korea, also saw the public embrace of Rodman, who got his nickname as a child, as some type of signal to the West and the U.S. government should "respond in kind."
"This is not a breakthrough but an indicator that North Korea wants to improve relations with the USA," he said.
"In their way of thinking, they were forced to continuously use the nuclear card with the USA as the USA has not responded favorably by abandoning anti-North Korea policies and transferring the armistice into a permanent peace mechanism," he said.
Rodman's visit follows one by Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt in January that the State Department called "unhelpful."
John Delury, an analyst at Seoul's Yonsei University, who was on Schmidt's trip, also thinks the United States should pick up where The Worm left off.
"The U.S. government should encourage this sort of thing," he says. "It's how we won the Cold War, you must maintain the deterrent, but then you reach out and you show them what you're about and seek to understand them better."
But others say that the media and left-leaning analysts are far too gullible when it comes to North Korea's intentions and seem perpetually willing to blame the West for the bizarre and dangerously militant behavior of a bandit regime.
Naively optimistic interpretations of North Korean statements have a long track record in Washington," said Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center.
Klinger says the misinterpretation of Pyongyang's supposed messages is dangerous because it creates false perceptions of dramatic policy reversals.
In 2012, Kim Jong Un's sponsorship of a stage show with Disney characters led some experts to predict that North Korea was warming to its enemies and ready to implement massive economic changes. Yet no changes came and Pyongyang defied U.N. resolutions against its missile program by twice launching long-range rockets.
In 2010, North Korea' New Year's message was more muted in its depiction of South Korea, leading experts to predict a thaw in Korean relations, Klingner said. Instead, Pyongyang sank a South Korean naval vessel in South Korean waters, killing 46 sailors, and shelled a civilian island of the South's, killing four more people.
In 2009, North Korean New Year's remarks about the United States were less critical than usual, he said, leading to anticipations of an impending breakthrough with the incoming Obama administration. Instead, Pyongyang unleashed a series of provocations, including missile and nuclear tests, and threatened war against Washington and its allies.
Kim Jong Un's 2013 speech called for an "end the division of the country" and confrontation between North and South. However, he went on to blame "outside forces" for tension, failing to mention its acts of war and repeated violations of agreements, international law and U.N. resolutions.
Still, Delury says he sees "some clear signals." He says Kim is certainly maintaining the hard line of "give us security or give us death" but is also saying, "'I'm young, kind of open, sort of a man of the people."
Episodes like the Rodman visit may not herald imminent change, "but this guy's just getting started, we could have decades of Kim Jong Un."
Last year, American basketball coaches played in North Korea as part of a Coaches Team International trip organized by British firm Koryo Tours. Koryo co-founder Nick Bonner says "any interaction" has significant effect.
"This kind of engagement changes people's perceptions," said Bonner, whose film comedy Comrade Kim Goes Flying shot inside North Korea opens this month. The Koreans "are meeting their first foreigners, doing their first high-five and laughing with people long perceived as the enemy."