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Published : 2014-01-09 21:20
Updated : 2014-01-09 21:20

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (center) talks to Dennis Rodman, former NBA star, while watching a friendly game between North Korean players and ex-NBA players at the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium in Pyongyang on Wednesday. (Yonhap News)

Retired U.S. basketball star Dennis Rodman has drawn the ire of human rights activists and some of his fellow professionals by singing “Happy Birthday” to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Wednesday.

Rodman reportedly visited a multimillion-dollar North Korean ski resort, which is one of Kim’s showcase projects, on Thursday.

Rodman led a chorus of North Koreans singing the song to the leader before leading a squad of former NBA stars in a friendly game that Kim attended with his young wife.

Rodman’s third trip to North Korea has drawn criticism from human rights activists and the family of imprisoned U.S. missionary Kenneth Bae after Rodman appeared to suggest in an interview with CNN peppered with obscenities that Bae, rather than the North Korean authorities, was responsible for his incarceration.

Bae’s sister, Terri Chung, said her family was outraged by Rodman’s comments and he should use his access to the North Korean leader to advocate on Bae’s behalf, rather than “hurl outrageous accusations” at her brother.

“He is playing games with my brother’s life,” Chung said in a statement.

“He is clearly uninformed about Kenneth’s case, and he is certainly not in any position to pass judgment,” Chung said, adding that Bae never had hostile intentions against the state.

Dennis Rodman apologized Thursday for comments about Bae.

Rodman issued the apology through publicist Jules Feiler in an email message to The Associated Press.

“I want to apologize,” Rodman said. “I take full responsibility for my actions. It had been a very stressful day. Some of my teammates were leaving because of pressure from their families and business associates. My dreams of basketball diplomacy was quickly falling apart. I had been drinking. It’s not an excuse but by the time the interview happened I was upset. I was overwhelmed. It’s not an excuse, it’s just the truth,” he said through publicist Jules Feiler in an email message to The Associated Press.

“I want to first apologize to Kenneth Bae’s family. I want to apologize to my teammates and my management team. I also want to apologize to Chris Cuomo. I embarrassed a lot of people. I’m very sorry. At this point I should know better than to make political statements. I’m truly sorry.”

The U.S. State Department distanced itself from Rodman and said it did not want to “dignify” his activities or comments in Pyongyang by commenting on them. But spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the department was open to speaking with Rodman on his return.

“We have not reached out to him. We’ve said before, if he wants to reach out to us, we’re happy to hear from him and what he has to say,” she told reporters.

Rodman dedicated the game to his “best friend” Kim, who along with his wife and other senior officials and their wives watched from a special seating area. The capacity crowd of about 14,000 at the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium clapped loudly as Rodman sang a verse from the birthday song.

Rodman said he was honored to be able to play the game in the North Korean capital and called the event “historic.” Some members of the U.S. Congress, the NBA and human rights groups, however, say he has become a public relations tool for North Korea’s government.

The government’s poor human rights record and its threats to use nuclear weapons against rival South Korea and the United States have kept it a pariah state. Kim shocked the world in December by having his uncle, once considered his mentor, executed after being accused of a litany of crimes including corruption, womanizing, drug abuse and attempting to seize power.

The 52-year-old Rodman has refused to address those concerns while continuing to forge a relationship with Kim, whose age has never been officially disclosed. The government did not say how old he turned Wednesday but he is believed to be in his early 30s.

Rodman is the highest-profile American to meet Kim. He has carefully avoided getting involved in overtly political activities, saying that he is not a statesman and instead is seeking only to build cultural connections with the North through basketball, which may help improve relations between Pyongyang and Washington.

(From news reports)

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