FLAMBOYANT former basketball star Dennis Rodman left North Korea yesterday professing his affection for autocratic leader Kim Jong-un in a bizarre intervention into international politics.
Rodman angrily rejected calls to use his relationship with the young dictator to lobby for the release of imprisoned American citizen Kenneth Bae, yelling at reporters when he landed at China’s Beijing Airport.
Despite earlier calling on Kim to set Bae free, Rodman said the Christian missionary’s fate was none of his business.
Bae, a 45-year-old tour operator, was sentenced in April to 15 years of hard labour for what the regime claimed were attempts to overthrow the government.
“Guess what? That’s not my job to ask about Kenneth Bae,” Rodman told reporters upon arrival at the airport in Beijing.
“Ask Obama about that. Ask Hillary Clinton,” a visibly agitated Rodman shouted.
Chomping an unlit cigar, Rodman displayed photographs showing him hugging Kim, laughing and conversing with him over a meal, and the two of them watching a basketball game together.
The 6ft 7in five-time championship winner said the two had formed a close bond during his two visits to the isolated communist dictatorship.
“He’s my friend for life. I don’t care what you guys think about him,” Rodman said.
Rodman flashed with anger when asked about Bae, hurling obscene remarks at reporters who quizzed him about the purpose of his trip. At one point, he had to be restrained by a member of his entourage before being bundled into a waiting car.
Rodman told reporters as he was leaving his hotel in Pyongyang that Kim had spoken about him visiting again, and that Kim “really actually wants to change things”.
He said Kim had encouraged him when he returned to the United States to “say some very good, positive and very good things about this country, that’s what we talked about a lot”.
North Korea’s official news agency KCNA said that Kim invited Rodman to come back again “any time”.
Rodman first met Kim – an avid basketball fan – during a visit to North Korea in February to promote the sport and make a film.
The two-time defensive player of the year has suggested that “basketball diplomacy” could warm relations and has called Kim an “awesome guy”.
Rodman once asked on his Twitter account for Kim to “do me a solid” and release Bae.
Bae was arrested in November and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour for what Pyongyang described as hostile acts against the state.
Kim has the power to grant special pardons under North Korea’s constitution.