Former National Basketball Association basketball star Dennis Rodman arrived in North Korea on Monday with a team of retired professional basketball players to mark the birthday of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
This marks Mr. Rodman’s fourth trip to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, where he and his team of fellow former NBA stars will hold basketball games on Mr. Kim’s birthday, which is believed to fall on Wednesday, although it has never been officially confirmed.
On previous visits, Mr. Rodman spent time dining as a guest of Mr. Kim, with whom he says he has a genuine friendship, though he did not meet Mr. Kim on his third trip. Mr. Rodman, however, said he would not interfere in the country’s politics.
“People always say that North Korea is like a really communist country, that people are not allowed to go there,” Mr. Rodman told reporters at an airport in Beijing. “I just know the fact that, you know, to me he’s a nice guy, to me,” he said of Mr. Kim.
“Whatever he does political-wise, that’s not my job. I’m just an athlete, an individual who wants to go over there and play something for the world. That’s it,” he added.
His latest visit follows the rare public purge of Mr. Kim’s powerful uncle Jang Song-thaek, who was executed in December.
Mr. Rodman has faced both ridicule and harsh criticism from some quarters for his trips, which some U.S. politicians and activists view as serving only as fodder for propaganda efforts by the North Korean regime.
“It’s a cruel joke,” Eliot Engel, a Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives and the ranking minority member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at a Monday press conference in New York.
“There has to be some modicum of behaviour before you sit down with people,” he said. “The people of North Korea are suffering and we’re offering them basketball.”
Mr. Engel was joined by several North Koreans who have fled the country for political asylum in the U.S. at the press conference, which was organized by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human-rights group.
“I want to say to NBA player people, please don’t make Kim Jong-un happy,” said Jo Jin-hye, an exiled North Korean now living in Virginia who also runs “NK in USA,” an organization that helps fellow exiles.
“If you want to help North Korea,” she told reporters, “just help normal North Korean people, not North Korea’s government or Kim Jong-un.”
The NBA also criticized the trip on Monday. “The NBA is not involved with Mr. Rodman’s North Korea trip and would not participate or support such a venture without the approval of the U.S. State Department,” NBA commissioner David Stern said in a statement. “Although sports in many instances can be helpful in bridging cultural divides, this is not one of them.”
At the U.S. State Department, spokeswoman Marie Harf said of Mr. Rodman: “He’s not there as a representative of the U.S. government trying to effect anything.” She also repeated the U.S. government’s advice that Americans avoid travelling there.
While in transit at Beijing’s airport, the flamboyant Mr. Rodman – wearing sunglasses, a sequin-encrusted cap and a pink scarf – was asked about his response to critics who said he should not play in the reclusive state.
“Are they going to shoot me? Are they going to shoot me? Come on, man,” he said.