PYONGYANG, North Korea – Dennis Rodman said Monday that a game he and other former National Basketball Association players are planning in North Korea will be a “birthday present” for one of their most unlikely fans: 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 Kim’s birthday. The former NBA players, who arrived Monday in Pyongyang, also include Eric “Sleepy” Floyd, guard Doug Christie and Charles D. Smith, who played for the New York Knicks. Four streetballers are also on the squad.
Rodman told The Associated Press he was glad to be in North Korea for the game, though he said he has gotten death threats for his repeated visits. He said proceeds from the game would go to a charity for the deaf in North Korea.
“The marshal is actually trying to change this country in a great way,” Rodman said of 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 fame and fortune.” Instead, he said, he sees the game as a “birthday present” for Kim and his country.
“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,” he said. “I hope people will have a different view about North Korea.”
The game will be another milestone in Rodman’s surprising relationship with 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 Kim since the leader inherited power after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in late 2011.
Rodman traveled to North Korea for the first time in February with the Harlem Globetrotters for an HBO series. After spending time together, Rodman called Kim a “friend for life” and came back just before Christmas to hold tryouts for the North Korean basketball team, although he did not meet with Kim then.
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 since the two countries never signed a peace treaty to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War. Thousands of U.S. troops are still based in South Korea, and the Demilitarized 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 and its threats to use them if a conflict breaks out with Washington or Seoul. Rodman has also been slammed for not trying to use his influence with Kim to secure the release of Kenneth Bae, an American missionary with health problems who is being held in North Korea on charges of committing “anti-state” crimes.
To make the trip more complicated, Kim’s once-powerful uncle was recently executed for a long litany of alleged crimes, including trying to divide the regime and usurp power from Kim. Although that has generated speculation abroad about the regime’s unity, North Korean officials say the execution settled the issue and there is no instability.
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. I want no money, no money.”
Former Knicks player 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.”