Despite the turmoil following news that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had his powerful uncle executed for treason, former NBA star Dennis Rodman, who has built a friendship with Kim is still set to visit the reclusive nation next week.
Rodman is heading to Pyongyang next week for training sessions ahead of a friendship exhibition game. The match between North Korea and a team of mainly former NBA players is scheduled for January 8, Kim’s birthday.
Paddy Power, an Irish bookmaker that is sponsoring the game, said the December 19-23 training sessions were not affected by the recent political events, where Kim’s uncle and former mentor Jang Song-thaek was recently purged in a surprise move.
Before he was expelled from power and executed, Jang Song-thaek, who was the No 2 man in government, was the chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission, one of Kim’s pet projects.
“Those events don’t change anything for us,” said Rory Scott, a spokesman for the Irish bookmakers. “We’re doing this because our customers love sport, which is the universal language.
“Let’s call it ‘hoops not nukes’,” he said. Satellite photos this month suggested Pyongyang was stepping up its nuclear activity in line with the regime’s vows to expand its weapons programme.
In light of the political upheaval that has caused concern among neighbouring countries and which sends a chilling signal to Pyongyang's elite, Rodman’s impending visit – which had been planned some time before – provoked much reaction from internet users, particularly on Twitter.
I mean, if Kim Jong Un executed Jang for womanizing and debauchery, what the hell is he going to say to Dennis Rodman?
— Matt Schiavenza (@MattSchiavenza) December 13, this year
Seems like an appropriate time to start loading up the Dec. 18-21 Dennis Rodman to NK trip with all manner of unreasonable expectations.
— Adam Cathcart (@adamcathcart) December 13, this year
Attn: Dennis Rodman, Is your boy Kim Jong-Un still a good guy after executing his own uncle?
— Active-One(Anthony) (@WestCoastOffnse) December 13, this year
The heavily tattooed Rodman made his first trip to North Korea in March, and was famously invited for an official trip months later. Rodman has declared the young ruler a “friend for life” and, later, a “good guy”. He even shed light on some murky aspects of the Kim dynasty, revealing the name of Kim's baby daughter.
Meanwhile, Scott, who is accompanying Rodman on the upcoming trip along with a television documentary crew, said the players in the US team would be announced in the coming days.
“It will be a mix of former NBA players, including a couple of legends, and some young guys,” Scott said. “Dennis is going to spend some time with the North Korean team this month before the game.”
“We are all getting excited about this now,” he said.
Scott refused to reveal how much Rodman would be paid for his involvement.
Kim, who was educated in Switzerland, is reported to be a keen basketball fan and especially of the Chicago Bulls, for whom Rodman played a key role in winning three NBA titles alongside Michael Jordan in the 1990s.
WATCH: 'I'm just meeting my friend Kim' - Rodman's earlier visit to the North