Dennis Rodman and a team of former National Basketball Association players arrived in North Korea on Monday for a game he says will be a “birthday present” for one of their most unlikely fans: leader Kim Jong Un.
Rodman traveled to North Korea for the first time last 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, though 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 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."
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