It promises to go down as one of the more improbable chapters in the annals of international diplomacy: an eccentric former American sports star reaching out to the nuclear-armed dictatorship of North Korea by convening an international basketball match. If all goes to plan, Dennis Rodman will shepherd a 12-strong squad of his former NBA colleagues to Pyongyang in January. There, in the capital, they will face off against a Rodman-trained team of local athletes.
“The country is not bad. The marshal [Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader of North Korea] – he wants to change... If you meet the marshal, he’s a very good guy,” Mr Rodman insisted at a press conference in New York on Monday, saying that the first of two matches between his NBA all-star team and the North Koreans would be held on Mr Kim’s birthday on 8 January.
The basketball star was speaking following his second trip to the nation. The visit, organised with the support of the Irish bookmaker Paddy Power, which will also help stage the match, saw the member of the NBA hall of fame renew his bond with Mr Kim, his “friend for life.” Criticising President Obama for not engaging with the North Korean leader, he said: “Why Obama, are you afraid to talk to Dennis Rodman? You’re not afraid to talk to Beyoncé and Jay-Z, why not me? I’m pretty important now.”
Mr Rodman also revealed that he had become the first foreigner to hold the youthful dictator’s new-born baby (earlier, in an interview with he revealed the baby’s name: Ju-ae).
In addition to his “basketball diplomacy” mission, Mr Rodman will also train the North Korean team for the Olympics. The supreme leader, whose father, Kim Jong-il died in 2011, has also given Mr Rodman “the rights for me and him to sit down for one month” and pen a book together. Furthermore, Mr Rodman promised that he will be “the first guy to interview” the dictator on TV. “Watch me,” he said.
But what about the repression? What about the poverty that the regime seeks to mask with over-the-top military parades? And what about the country’s menacing missile tests that periodically raise the temperature not just across the Korean peninsula but around the world?
“If he wanted to bomb anybody in the world, he would have done it,” Mr Rodman said, rising to his friend’s defence and taking shots at President Obama for not talking to Pyongyang. He added: “I said this to him: ‘Your grandfather and your father did some bad things, but you’re trying to change things’.”
And what of Kenneth Bae, the American Christian missionary recently sentenced to 15 years hard labour by the North Koreans. The US government has been pressing for his release, as reports filter out of his ill health. When told about his sister’s comments that Mr Rodman’s trip had been a waste, the former basketball star said: “I wasn’t going there to try and rescue somebody – I’m trying to open doors.”
Video: North Korea holds massive parade