Puffing on a cigar and clad in a pastel pink shirt, Dennis Rodman watched as about two dozen North Korean basketball players practiced their moves on an indoor Pyongyang court. He also took to the court himself to take a few demonstration shots and challenge young athletes to dribble the ball around him.
The scene, reported by the Associated Press (the only American news agency that has a Pyongyang bureau) was the world’s first glance of Mr. Rodman’s activities in North Korea since he touched down in Pyongyang on Thursday. The visit comes shortly after a brutal internal crackdown by the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and several recent episodes of international saber-rattling, though Rodman insists that his visit is entirely apolitical.
This is Rodman’s third trip to the hermit state, after he struck up a friendship with Mr. Kim during his first visit last February. Like the previous two times, he is accompanied by television crews and an Irish online betting company is sponsoring his visit, the New York Times reports.
Rodman’s plan is to organize an exhibition game between NBA veterans and North Korean players on Kim’s birthday next month. (Kim’s age is a mystery though most observers believe he is around 30, according to Bloomberg.) For that, he is recruiting athletes locally, reportedly launching the selection process during today’s tryouts.
The Associated Press described a brief exchange between Rodman and North Korean players today:
When asked why he liked basketball, North Korean player Kim Un Chol told Rodman he started playing the game because he was impressed by it on TV, and said he also wants to be good at the sport because it is a favorite of leader Kim and his late father, Kim Jong Il.
Rodman asked all the players if they felt the same way. They nodded in unison.
"I want you guys to do one thing for your leader," Rodman then told them. "It's his birthday. It's a very special, special day for the country."
The exhibition game is planned to consist of two parts. First, the North Koreans will face off with the US players. Then, the two teams will share athletes and will be mixed for the second round.
There’s just one catch, it seems: the American players are afraid to come. Rodman needs 12 players to make the journey, and, if his own words are any indication, he’s having trouble securing their participation.
"You know, they're still afraid to come here,” he told the Associated Press after the tryouts. “But I'm just telling them, you know, don't be afraid man, it's all love, it's all love here."
The State Department has recently issued a stern travel warning for North Korea, saying that no Americans should visit the hermit state. In October, Korean War veteran Merrill Newman was seized during an official tour, according to the New York Times.
Because the US and North Korea have no diplomatic relations, Rodman is the highest-profile American to meet Kim, whom Rodman has called “a friend for life” and “a very good guy.” This catapults Rodman’s ostensibly personal trip to an event of global scrutiny. As the Christian Science Monitor reported on Monday:
More than a few US diplomats and North Asia experts would love to plant a few questions in Rodman’s ear on the chance he might casually run them by Kim, should the two again share courtside seats.
For example: Why did the regime release […] Newman earlier this month after detaining him in October as he was about to leave the country after an organized trip? Yet, why do the North Koreans hold on to American Kenneth Bae, who was sentenced in May to 15 years in prison for what authorities said was the American Christian’s attempt to overthrow the regime? […]
And, an even more intriguing question Rodman might ask Kim that experts would love to hear the answer to: Why did you do away with Uncle Jang?
The last question refers to the execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, long considered the second most powerful person in North Korea and Kim’s mentor, on charges of treason and depravity.
Meanwhile, North Korea made headlines today for issuing a stern threat to strike South Korea – a threat conveyed via fax, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency that broke the news, citing an unnamed source in the defense ministry. The message said that the ongoing anti-Pyongyang rallies in Seoul violated North Korea’s "highest dignity," promising “ruthless retaliation” if they are not stopped.