Former NBA star Dennis Rodman arrived in North Korea on Monday with a team of retired professional basketball players to mark the birthday of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
This marks Rodman’s fourth trip to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, where he and his team of fellow former NBA stars will hold basketball games on Kim’s birthday, which is believed to be today, although it has never been officially confirmed.
On previous visits, Rodman spent time dining as a guest of Kim, with whom he says he has a genuine friendship, though he did not meet Kim on his third trip.
However, Rodman said he will not interfere in the country’s politics.
“People always say that North Korea is like a really communist country, that people are not allowed to go there,” Rodman told reporters at an airport in Beijing.
“I just know the fact that, you know, to me he’s a nice guy, to me,” he said of Kim.
“Whatever he does political-wise, that’s not my job. I’m just an athlete, an individual who wants to go over there and play something for the world. That’s it,” he added.
Rodman’s latest visit follows the rare public purge of Kim’s powerful uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who was executed last month.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye has described recent events in North Korea as a “reign of terror.”
The purging of Jang, considered the second-most powerful man in the north, was widely seen as a sign of factionalism within the secretive government.
The visit also comes as the US government is trying to secure the release of Kenneth Bae, a US man of Korean descent who worked as a Christian missionary before his arrest by North Korea and conviction in May last year on charges of crimes against the state.
Rodman has faced both ridicule and harsh criticism from some quarters for his trips, which some US politicians and activists view as serving only as fodder for propaganda efforts by the North Korean regime.
“It’s a cruel joke,” said US Representative Eliot Engel, the ranking minority member of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, at a Monday press conference in New York City.
“There has to be some modicum of behavior before you sit down with people,” he said. “The people of North Korea are suffering and we’re offering them basketball.”
Engel was joined by several North Koreans who filed for political asylum in the US at the press conference, which was organized by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human-rights group.
“I want to say to NBA player people, please don’t make Kim Jong-un happy,” said Jo Jin-hye, an exiled North Korean now living in Virginia who runs NK in USA, an organization that helps fellow exiles.
“If you want to help North Korea, just help normal North Korean people, not North Korea’s government or Kim Jong-un,” she told reporters.
The NBA also criticized the trip on Monday.
“The NBA is not involved with Mr Rodman’s North Korea trip and would not participate or support such a venture without the approval of the US State Department,” NBA commissioner David Stern said. “Although sports in many instances can be helpful in bridging cultural divides, this is not one of them.”
The US Department of State spokeswoman Marie Harf said that Rodman had not contacted the US government about his trip.
“He’s not there as a representative of the US government trying to effect anything,” Harf said. “We were not contacted by him and he’s not there representing us.”