Former NBA star Dennis Rodman made his third visit to North Korea on Thursday, drawing keen attention as he is the first high-profile American allowed to stay in the reclusive country in the aftermath of the chilling execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle.
Rodman is trotting into the secretive society thanks largely to his special relationship with Kim, who recently surprised the international community by staging a harsh political purge involving his uncle Jang Song-thaek.
South Korean and U.S. spy agencies are more than eager to know what Rodman will witness in Pyongyang, but details about his schedule are far from revealing. The ex-Chicago Bulls player is set to hold training sessions Dec. 19-23 to prepare for an exhibition game in Pyongyang slated for Jan. 8 to mark the birthday of the North Korean leader, whom he once dubbed a “friend for life.” He previously said other basketball players would accompany him on the trip, but the names have not yet been revealed.
Another factor is that North Korea will not give Rodman a real chance to observe the poverty-stricken country as it is. For instance, he reportedly enjoyed parties and drinking with Kim Jong-un during his second visit in September, pastimes far removed from the harsh realities of North Korea.
Although Rodman boasted of a close relationship with Kim in interviews with the U.S. media, there’s a chance he might be greeted by his North Korean friends in a different manner this time. His visit comes right after a storm of purges ― referred to in South Korea as a “reign of terror” ― swept through the top political arena of Pyongyang. Jang Song-thaek and his key aides were removed from all posts and executed overnight, sparking a wave of speculation about the turbulent state of the ruling class in the North.
The trip’s sponsor, Paddy Power, an Irish bookmaker, said the visit was nonpolitical and intended to show the power of sport over all other issues. “Let’s call it ‘hoops, not nukes,’” said Rory Scott, a spokesman for the sponsor.
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department insisted on Tuesday that Rodman does not represent the government.
“The focus really should be on the brutality of the North Korean regime he’s going to meet with,” Marie Harf, a State Department spokesperson, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.
Few expect the heavily tattooed former pro to make any real diplomatic changes or have a chance to objectively observe the conditions in North Korea, but some still hope he might end up playing a role in inter-Korean relations.
Rodman faced criticism from human rights groups in the U.S. for keeping mum on North Korea’s human right issues and the release of Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae, who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for a “hostile act.” After his second visit in September, he told reporters that it was not his job to talk about the detained.
By Park Han-na (email@example.com