BEIJING — He's been mocked in the USA as the propaganda plaything of North Korea's young dictator. His corporate sponsor pulled its name last month. And he's admitted to difficulty persuading other ex-NBA stars to visit one of the world's most repressive regimes.
But Dennis Rodman, self-appointed "basketball diplomat," led 12 U.S. players to Pyongyang Monday for an exhibition game there Wednesday to mark the birthday of his friend Kim Jung Un, the third generation of the Kim dynasty that dominates North Korea, and regularly threatens peace in northeast Asia.
The flamboyant, former Chicago Bulls forward has struck up an unlikely friendship with the reportedly basketball-loving leader, who had his powerful uncle Jang Song Thaek executed last month. Highly isolated North Korea controls information on its ruling family to such an extent that even Kim's actual age remains unconfirmed.
Rodman, who was the first to confirm the gender and name of Kim's infant child, promised Monday "to put on a good show for him for his birthday." Rodman and 11 of his chosen team-mates, including ex-NBA players and current street ball and Harlem Globetrotter players, left Beijing on a midday flight to Pyongyang, Rodman's fourth trip there in under a year.
While he did not meet Kim on his last visit in December, "This time you're going to see me with him the whole time," Rodman promised at Beijing airport. "I'm always happy to go back there… To me, he's a nice guy to me," he said.
Rodman has so far declined to criticize his host, whose government has jailed American-Korean missionary Kenneth Bae in one of its many labor camps, but he hinted at raising broader issues with Kim at a future date.
"(It's) not my job" to talk human rights, he said Monday. "This game is for his birthday, and hopefully this open the doors and we can actually talk about certain things and we can do certain things. But I'm not going to sit there and go 'hey, guy, you're doing the wrong thing.' It's not the right thing to do, he's my friend first. .. I love him," said Rodman.
"When the time comes, when I do that (discuss issues such as human rights), I am going to sit down and talk to all the people around the world. I am going to tell you everything that happened," he said.
Earlier, Rodman told the Associated Press outside his Beijing hotel that his mission is "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," he said. "People say so many negative things about North Korea. And I want people in the world to see it's not that bad."
His roster includes former NBA stars such as Vin Baker, Kenny Anderson, Doug Christie and Cliff Robinson. The players skirted politics as they maneuvered through the media scrum at Beijing airport Monday. "We just come out to put on a game, a great event just to bridge culture through basketball, something that's been done for years and years, we're just going over there to have some fun," said Baltimore street baller Andre "Silk" Poole, who looked forward to the trip raising money for children's charities in North Korea.
The U.S. State Department warns U.S. citizens against visiting North Korea, where several Americans have been detained in recent years. "I'm not nervous at all," said Harlem Globetrotter Antwan Scott. "I'm doing something I love, to play basketball, to entertain, been doing it all my life, haven't had a problem." Why did he accept Rodman's invite? "To have some fun, that's it."
A twelfth U.S. player will join Rodman's team in Pyongyang Tuesday, said Michael Spavor, a Canadian who helps organize Rodman's visits, and who said Rodman would also play at least part of the game Wednesday. The audience can expect a diplomatic result. Last month, Rodman said his team will take on the North Koreans in the first half, but the teams will be mixed for the second half.
Despite the skepticism back home, one veteran United Nations officer urged people to take Rodman "at face value" and recognize his charity work. "Dennis has been very active in humanitarian work and I applaud him for that," said Theodore G. Schweitzer III, 71, from Las Vegas, who worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Rodman met with the Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled in Pyongyang, said Schweitzer, who took the same flight to Pyongyang Monday and will attend Wednesday's game. "It's a great thing that Dennis is raising awareness about the disabled in Korea," a "new concept" there, he said. Schweitzer recently established a charity, the Korea Children's Fund, to produce high-energy biscuits for young orphans in a planned factory in the Pyongyang suburbs. "It's just children, needy children, babies, there's nothing political about it," he said.