Retired basketball star Dennis Rodman sang Happy Birthday to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un before leading a squad of former NBA stars in a friendly game as part of his “basketball diplomacy” that has been criticised as naive and laughable.
Rodman dedicated the game yesterday to his “best friend” Mr Kim, who watched, along with his wife and other senior officials and their spouses. The capacity crowd of about 14,000 at the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium clapped loudly as Rodman sang.
Rodman said he was honoured to play the game in the North Korean capital and called the event “historic”.
The government’s poor human rights record and its threats to use nuclear weapons against rival South Korea and the US have kept it a pariah state. Mr Kim shocked the world in December by having his uncle, once considered his mentor, executed after being accused of crimes including corruption, womanising, drug abuse and attempting to seize power.
Rodman, 52, has refused to address those concerns while continuing to forge a relationship with Mr Kim, whose age has never been officially disclosed. The government did not say how old he was yesterday but he is believed to be in his early 30s.
At the start of the game, Rodman sang Happy Birthday then bowed as North Korean players clapped. To keep it friendly, the Americans played against the North Koreans in the first half, but split up and merged teams for the second half.
The North Korean team scored 47 points to 39 for the Americans before the teams were mixed. Rodman played only in the first half and then sat next to Mr Kim during the second half.
“A lot of people have expressed different views about me and your leader, your marshall, and I take that as a compliment,” Rodman told the crowd. “Yes, he is a great leader, he provides for his people here in this country and thank God the people here love the marshall.”
Rodman has been slammed in the US for not using his influence with Mr Kim to help free Kenneth Bae, an American missionary in poor health who is being confined in the North for “anti-state” crimes. In an television interview on Tuesday, Rodman implied that Bae was at fault for being held captive.
Bae’s sister, Terri Chung, yesterday said his family couldn’t believe what Rodman said.
“Here’s somebody who is in a position to do some good for Kenneth and refuses to do so,” Ms Chung said from Seattle. “And then after the fact, instead, he decides to hurl these unqualified accusations against Kenneth. It’s clear he has no idea what he’s talking about.”
The game is a new milestone in Rodman’s unusual relationship with Mr Kim, who inherited power after the death of his father in late 2011 and rarely meets foreigners.
He remains a mystery to much of the outside world and until recently, his birthday was not widely known.
Members of the visiting US team said they came because they believed the game would be a good opportunity to create a human connection with the people of the isolated country. But some said they have been concerned by the negative reaction they have seen from the media and critics back home.