Rodman hopes exhibition basketball game in North Korea will 'engage' US
Ex-NBA star brushes aside politics of reclusive state, saying sport can boost understanding
Agencies in Beijing
Former NBA star Dennis Rodman hopes a basketball game he is organising in North Korea will "engage" the American people and US President Barack Obama.
"Sport is so important to people around the world so I hope this is going to engage the American people, especially Obama," the eccentric former Chicago Bulls star said at Beijing airport yesterday. He later arrived in Pyongyang.
Rodman is organising an exhibition game between North Korea and a team of mainly former NBA players on January 8, to mark the birthday of reclusive leader Kim Jong-un.
"I know [Kim] is waiting for me to come back. So hopefully we will have some conversation about some things that's going to help the world," Rodman said.
The young ruler, 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.
The Bulls give Kim and Obama one of the few things they can agree on. Obama, a keen basketball player, is also known to be a diehard fan of the Bulls who hail from the town where the US president forged his early political career.
The heavily tattooed Rodman has developed an unlikely relationship with the North Korean leader since making his first trip there in March, when he declared Kim a "friend for life".
Watch: Rodman hopes N. Korea basketball match will 'engage' US
Earlier this month Kim had uncle and former mentor Jang Song-thaek executed in a surprise move, but Rodman distanced himself from political events in the country.
"I have got nothing to do with that," he said. "I mean, whatever his uncle has done, and whoever's done anything in North Korea, I have no control over that. I mean, these things have been going on for years and years and years. I'm just going over there to do a basketball game and have some fun."
The ex-NBA team are expected to be announced during Rodman's visit, his third of the year to the hermit state of North Korea.
"I hope this game brings a lot of countries together, because as I said, sport is so important to people around the world," Rodman said. "So I hope this is going to engage American people, especially Obama, to just to try to talk to them."
Rodman brushed aside official warnings by the US government to its citizens not to travel to North Korea, saying "there is nothing I can do about that" and adding that "if something happens it is beyond my control".
Known as much for his piercings, tattoos and bad behaviour as he was for basketball, Rodman has mostly avoided politics in his dealings with the North. He's mainly focused on using basketball as a means of boosting understanding and communication and studiously avoided commenting on the North's human rights record, regarded as one of the world's worst by activists, defectors and the US State Department.
"People have been saying these things here and there. It doesn't really matter to me. I'm not a politician. I'm not an ambassador," Rodman said.
"I'm just going over there to try to do something really cool for a lot of people, play some games and try to get the Korean kids to play," he said.
"Everything else I have nothing to do with. If it happens that he wants to talk about it then great. If it doesn't happen I just can't bring it up because I don't [want] him to think that I'm over there trying to be an ambassador and trying to use him as being his friend and all of a sudden I'm talking about politics. That's not going to be that way."
Accompanying Rodman to Pyongyang were Irish bookmakers and trip sponsors Paddy Power - which has said the match schedule had not been affected by political events - and a television documentary crew.
Pyongyang is holding a US citizen, Kenneth Bae, who was sentenced to 15 years in jail on charges of trying to topple the North Korean regime.
US officials said earlier this week that they had not been in touch with Rodman over the visit.
Agence France-Presse, Reuters, Associated Press