Dennis Rodman to host surprise birthday B-ball game for North Korea leader

Dennis Rodman goes to North Korea next week to start coaching the national basketball team. But Dennis Rodman also has a birthday surprise planned: former NBA players will play for Kim Jong-un. Who will play for the Dear Leader?

Former NBA star Dennis Rodman plans to travel to North Korea next week to train its basketball team, a trip unaffected by the execution of leader Kim Jong Un's uncle.

Jang Song Thaek's execution, announced early Friday in Pyongyang, marked an unprecedented fall from grace of one of the most powerful figures in the country as well as its most serious political upheaval in decades. Jang was North Korea's No. 2 official — behind only Kim.

Rodman considers Kim a close friend and has a long-scheduled trip that starts Monday to train the national team. Rodman also has organized an exhibition game in January in Pyongyang to celebrate Kim's birthday. Rodman could reveal the roster next week. He says former professional basketball players have committed to the game, though he declined to reveal names.

Rodman, known as much for his piercings, tattoos and bad behavior as he was for basketball, was the highest-profile American to meet Kim since Kim inherited power from father Kim Jong Il in 2011. He traveled to the secretive state for the first time in February with the Harlem Globetrotters for an HBO series produced by New York-based VICE television.

"Yes, I'm going to North Korea to train the basketball team," he told The Associated Press by phone. "I'm going to bring American players over there. Yes I am. I'm going to be the most famous person in the world when you see American people holding hands and hoping the doors can be opened. If they can. If they can. If they can. I'm going. I'm going back for his birthday. Special."

Rodman has been criticized for not talking about North Korea's human rights record, described as one of the world's worst by activists, the U.S. State Department and North Korean defectors. The defectors have repeatedly testified about the government's alleged use of indiscriminate killings, rapes, beatings and prison camps holding as many as 120,000 people deemed opponents of authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un, the third generation of his family to rule.

But some observers say Rodman's visits are doing no harm. And might potentially, eventually, create a diplomatic opening. As The Christian Science Monitor reported after Rodman's last trip:

The US is not providing Pyongyang with money, prestige, or any diplomatic advantage via Rodman’s trips, in [Daniel] Pinkston’s view. Yet person-to-person exchanges such as the forthcoming basketball trip could help sow seeds for civil society in the tightly controlled, reclusive North Korean state.

“While only a small step, these games could become a mechanism for the introduction of new ideas and information that are so sorely needed in North Korea,” writes Pinkston in an analysis published Monday on the International Crisis Group website.

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