North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and former NBA star Dennis Rodman attend a basketball game in Pyongyang on Feb. 28.
(Photo: Korean Central News Agency via AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING - Former NBA star Dennis Rodman says he doesn't care how North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un runs his county. He's just in Pyongyang to hang out and help Kim field a basketball team.
"I can't control what they do with their government, I can't control what they say or how they do things here," Rodman told the Associated Press after arriving in North Korea on Thursday. "I'm just trying to come here as a sports figure and try to hope I can open the door for a lot of people in the country."
Rodman plans to bring 12 ex-NBA players to Pyongyang for an exhibition game Jan. 8 to mark Kim's birthday. Rodman said nothing Kim does, including the recent execution of his own uncle, would get in the way.
Kim had Jang Song Thaek shot for treason though exactly what he did has not been made public in this communist dictatorship. A longtime powerful figure in North Korea, Jang was accused of many things in state media including womanizing, gambling and embezzlement.
Rodman left for Pyongyang from Beijing airport Thursday afternoon and will stay in North Korea until Monday. He said he will return to North Korea next month with 12 American basketball players, whose names he will reveal on this trip.
"I hope this game brings a lot of countries together. Sports is so important to people around the world," Rodman said at the Beijing airport of his "basketball diplomacy" mission.
"I hope this is going to engage American people, especially with Obama, he has to try to talk to" Kim, said Rodman, who in his previous trip to Pyongyang told Kim he has a "friend for life."
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Rodman is not a representative of the U.S. government.
The former Chicago Bulls star and self-styled "bad boy" who markets a vodka brand by that name has become a fast if unlikely chum with Bulls fan Kim Jong Un, age about 30, the third generation of North Korea's ruling Kim dynasty.
A highly secretive authoritarian state, North Korea has jailed tens of thousands of people for political beliefs, and its population has suffered from massive starvation while the elites and military officers live in far better circumstances.
North Korea has attacked democratic South Korea several times and refuses to curtail a nuclear weapons program that Japan and other nations consider a grave threat to the region.
Rodman's trip is sponsored by Irish online gambling site Paddy Power. Rory Scott, a spokesman for the site, says Rodman's trip is meant to be a sporting and cultural event.
"Sport can rise above the news agenda and current affairs," Scott said.
He compared Rodman's trip to South African President Nelson Mandela's use of the rugby World Cup in 1995 to promote national unity, and soccer played between British and German troops during World War I.
Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based travel agency, said sports offers a universal language to engage with North Korean people.
"North Korea and the United States share very little, but they do share a love of basketball," Cockerell said. His firm has sold out its tour to accompany the Rodman team in January.
"People want to see something truly different and history in the making," he said.
Kim sees no contradiction in showing "dual signs" to the outside world, said Ahn Yin Hay, an international studies professor at Korea University in Seoul.
"He has one hand for the terror of execution and one to wave at Westerners as a gesture of reconciliation," she said.
Just don't expect Korean basketball to deliver the diplomatic breakthrough of ping-pong diplomacy between China and the United States, warned Aidan Foster Carter, a North Korea expert at Leeds University in the United Kingdom.
"Kim Jong Un just does as he pleases. One of the few facts known about him is his liking of basketball," he said. "He seems oblivious to the impact on his image."
Kim presided over ceremonies in Pyongyang on Tuesday marking the second anniversary of the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. At a mass rally of top party and army members, attendees applauded frantically. One of the criticisms leveled against Jang Song Thaek was "half-heartedly clapping" for Kim Jong Un.
Some of Uncle Jang's colleagues were present Tuesday, suggesting that Kim's purge has its limits, said Korea University's Ahn.
"He would rather show his unitary system is stable. He will also show there is no 'second man' in North Korea, and all the people are faithful to him," she said.