Former NBA star Dennis Rodman signs a ball for a Chinese fan after arriving back from Pyongyang, at Beijing's international airport on December 23, 2013. (GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING (USA TODAY) -- Former NBA star Dennis Rodman waved off critics Monday who say his plans for a basketball game in North Korea are giving an image boost to perhaps the world's worst dictator.
Rodman led 12 U.S. players to Pyongyang on Monday in what he described as an attempt to use basketball to build a bridge between the West and his "friend," North Korean President Kim Jong Un.
When asked by reporters about whether he had anything to say about Kim's repressive rule, Rodman said it was not his concern.
"(It's) not my job" to talk human rights, he said Monday. "This game is for his birthday, and hopefully this opens the doors and we can actually talk about certain things and we can do certain things. But I'm not going to sit there and go 'hey, guy, you're doing the wrong thing.' It's not the right thing to do, he's my friend first. .. I love him," Rodman said.
The flamboyant, former Chicago Bulls forward has struck up an unlikely friendship with the reportedly basketball-loving leader, who had his powerful uncle Jang Song Thaek executed last month and continues to jail whole families for criticizing his dictatorship.
Awaiting a flight in Beijing to Pyongyang, Rodman said outside his Beijing hotel that his mission is "about trying to connect two countries together in the world, to let people know that: Do you know what? Not every country in the world is that bad, especially North Korea," he said. "People say so many negative things about North Korea. And I want people in the world to see it's not that bad."
Rodman said he will play an exhibition game Wednesday to mark the birthday of Kim, the third generation of the Kim dynasty that has ruled North Korea since the 1950s. His roster includes former NBA stars Vin Baker, Kenny Anderson, Doug Christie, Eric "Sleepy" Floyd, Charles D. Smith and Cliff Robinson, and some who were never in the NBA.
The players skirted politics as they maneuvered through the media scrum at Beijing airport.
"We just come out to put on a game, a great event just to bridge culture through basketball, something that's been done for years and years, we're just going over there to have some fun," said Baltimore street baller Andre "Silk" Poole, who looked forward to the trip raising money for children's charities in North Korea.
Harlem Globetrotter Antwan Scott said he was just "doing something I love, to play basketball, to entertain, been doing it all my life, haven't had a problem."
Rights groups such as Amnesty International and Christian Solidarity Worldwide have criticized Rodman for visiting a country that has overseen the starvation of millions of its people and keeps as many as 200,000 people imprisoned for political crimes that include criticizing Kim's policies.
Kim has jailed American-Korean missionary Kenneth Bae in one of its many labor camps.
Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, has said Rodman or any public figure who meets with Kim has a responsibility to raise the country's "appalling" human rights record.
While he did not meet Kim on his last visit in December, "This time you're going to see me with him the whole time," Rodman promised at Beijing airport. "He's a nice guy to me."
"When the time comes, when I do that (discuss issues such as human rights), I am going to sit down and talk to all the people around the world. I am going to tell you everything that happened," he said.
Michael Spavor, a Canadian who helps organize Rodman's visits, and who said Rodman would also play at least part of the game Wednesday. Last month, Rodman said his team will take on the North Koreans in the first half, but the teams will be mixed for the second half.
Former United Nations officer Theodore G. Schweitzer III said he was glad Rodman was heading to North Korea for the game.
"Dennis has been very active in humanitarian work and I applaud him for that," said Schweitzer, 71, from Las Vegas, who worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Rodman met with the Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled in Pyongyang, said Schweitzer, who took the same flight to Pyongyang on Monday and will attend Wednesday's game.
"It's a great thing that Dennis is raising awareness about the disabled in Korea," said Schweitzer, who recently established a charity, the Korea Children's Fund, to produce high-energy biscuits for young orphans in a planned factory in the Pyongyang suburbs.
"It's just children, needy children, babies, there's nothing political about it," he said.
According to Human Rights Watch, Kim's government does not allow organized political opposition, free media or religious freedom. Arbitrary arrest, detention, lack of due process, and torture and state-approved rape "remain serious and pervasive problems." North Korea "enslaves" hundreds of thousands of citizens in prison camps, including children. The government periodically publicly executes citizens for stealing state property, hoarding food, and other "anti-socialist" crimes.
The UN says the Kim family directs food aid to military and government officials, and that an estimated 2 million people have died from famine due to the government's policies.
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