Retired sports star Dennis Rodman has said that a game he and other former US National Basketball Association players are planning in North Korea will be a “birthday present” for leader Kim Jong-un.
Rodman’s squad – featuring ex-All Stars Kenny Anderson, Cliff Robinson and Vin Baker – will play against a team of North Koreans on Wednesday, which is believed to be Mr Kim’s birthday. The former NBA players arrived in Pyongyang yesterday.
Rodman said he was glad to be in North Korea for the game, though he said he has received death threats for his repeated visits to the country.
“The marshal is actually trying to change this country in a great way,” Rodman said of Mr Kim, using the leader’s official title.
“I think that people thought that this was a joke, and Dennis Rodman is just doing this because of fame and fortune.”
Instead, he said, he sees the game as a “birthday present” for Mr Kim and his country. He added that proceeds from the game would go to a charity for the deaf in North Korea.
Rodman added: “Just to even have us here, it’s an awesome feeling. I want these guys here to show the world, and speak about North Korea in a great light. I hope people will have a different view about North Korea.”
The game will be another milestone in Rodman’s surprising relationship with Mr Kim, who rarely meets with foreigners and about whom very little is known outside of North Korea. Rodman is the highest-profile American to meet Mr Kim since he inherited power after his father, Kim Jong-il, died in 2011.
Rodman travelled to North Korea for the first time last February with the Harlem Globetrotters for an HBO series. After spending time together, Rodman called Mr Kim a “friend for life” and came back just before Christmas to hold trials for the North Korean basketball team.
Rodman has been given the red-carpet treatment on each of his trips, but visiting North Korea for any high-profile American is a political minefield. To keep the game itself friendly, the two sides will only play against each other in the first half, and then mix together in the second.
Americans are regarded as enemies in North Korea as the two countries never signed a peace treaty to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War. Thousands of US troops are still based in South Korea, and the Demilitarised Zone between the North and South is one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world.
Relations are also tense because of the North’s development of nuclear weapons.
Rodman has also been slammed for not trying to use his influence with Mr Kim to secure the release of Kenneth Bae, an American Christian missionary with health problems who is being held in North Korea on charges of committing “anti-state” crimes.
Rodman’s latest visit follows the public purge of Mr Kim’s powerful uncle Jang Song Thaek, who was executed in December.
South Korean president Park Geun-hye has described recent events in North Korea as a “reign of terror”.
The purging of Mr Jang, considered the second most powerful man in the North, indicated factionalism within the secretive government.
Rodman, however, says none of that is his concern.
“I’m not a president, I’m not a politician, I’m not an ambassador,” he said before arriving. “I’m just an athlete and the reason for me to go is to bring peace to the world, that’s it. That’s all I want, no money.”
Former New York Knicks player Charles D Smith said he hopes the game will lead to better relations between the two countries.
“It’s new being here, but overall the concept is not new,” he said.
“The team is made up of a lot of guys who really care, that’s the most important, it’s not about bringing dream-teamers. It’s about guys who are coming that want to be a part of this, that care, and really that care about humanity.”