Dennis Rodman said on Monday that he wanted to show that North Korea was not that bad, as he took a team of former NBA players on a trip for an exhibition game on Kim Jong-un’s birthday.
The flamboyant Hall of Famer headed to the North Korean capital from Beijing with a squad of a dozen stars including Vin Baker, Kenny Anderson and Cliff Robinson in what Rodman called “basketball diplomacy”, although US officials have criticised his efforts.
Rodman also told reporters at Beijing airport that he would not raise concerns about repression in North Korea because leader Kim was his friend.
He hoped the match could “open the doors” to “talk about certain things”. “But I am not going to sit there and go, ‘Hey guy, you are doing the wrong thing.' That is not the right way to do it. He is my friend first … and I love him,” Rodman said, sprinkling his comments with expletives.
Rodman told reporters at Beijing airport that he hoped the match could “open the doors” to “talk about certain things”.
Watch: Rodman says he loves N. Korea's Kim Jong-Un
Rodman has been faulted for not talking about North Korea’s human rights record, described as one of the world’s worst by activists, the US State Department and North Korean defectors.
“It’s about trying to connect two countries together in the world, to let people know that: Do you know what? Not every country in the world is that bad, especially North Korea,” Rodman said outside his hotel before heading to the airport.
“People say so many negative things about North Korea. And I want people in the world to see it’s not that bad,” he said later.
The US players are to compete in an exhibition game against a North Korean team on Wednesday, Kim’s birthday. Former NBA players Doug Christie, Craig Hodges and Charles D. Smith are also in Rodman’s side for the exhibition game.
“Somehow we have to get along, and no matter what disagreements or what discrepancy we have in life,” Rodman said. “It’s like saying: Why do we have the Olympics? When everyone one comes together in the Olympics, there’s no problems. That’s what I’m doing. That’s all I’m doing.”
The United States is at odds with North Korea over its nuclear weapons programme. Defectors have also repeatedly testified about the government’s alleged use of indiscriminate killings, rapes, beatings and prison camps holding as many as 120,000 people deemed opponents of Kim, the third-generation of his family to rule.
The country has in the past been hit by famine, sometimes threatens war against South Korea and the US, and is regularly accused of human rights abuses.
The heavily tattooed Rodman has developed an unlikely relationship with the North Korean leader since making his first trip there in February, when he declared Kim a “friend for life”.
The young 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.
Rodman, who is making his fourth visit to Pyongyang, made his last trip shortly before Christmas, when he trained the North Korean players.
Earlier last year, he visited the North with the Harlem Globetrotters, as part of what he describes as “basketball diplomacy”.
Last month Kim had his uncle and former mentor Jang Song-thaek executed. “I am not worried about his uncle,” Rodman said in Beijing in response to questions about the move.
Rodman routinely distances himself from political events in the country.
The player known as “The Worm” is one of the few Westerners to have met Kim, who took over following the death of his father Kim Jong-il.