Dennis Rodman waves to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, seated in the stands, after singing "Happy Birthday" to Kim before an exhibition basketball game with U.S. and North Korean players in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Jan. 8.(Photo: Kim Kwang Hyon, AP)
BEIJING (USA TODAY) -- Dennis Rodman sang Happy Birthday to North Korean
dictator Kim Jong Un on Wednesday before leading a team of former NBA
stars for a game of "basketball diplomacy" that has been criticized by
Rodman took on a North Korean team in the capital
Pyongyang in an exhibition game that excited a capacity crowd of around
14,000 at the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium.
Kim watched the game from a special seating area along with his wife and other senior officials and their wives.
Rodman sang Happy Birthday
before the start of the game in which the North Korean team scored 47
points to 39 for the Americans before the teams were mixed for the
second half. Rodman played in the first half and then sat next to Kim
during the second half.
MORE: These entertainers sang to dictators
52, a former star for the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons, insists he
is trying to forge a bridge between the West and his "good friend" Kim.
But Amnesty International, the NBA and the family of an American
missionary jailed in North Korea have accused him of giving an image
boost to a despot whose regime has starved millions of its people,
imprisoned tens of thousands of citizens and threatens U.S. allies with
In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, Rodman expressed
no sympathy for missionary Kenneth Bae, an American citizen who was
born in South Korea, for his captivity in a North Korean labor camp, and
suggested Bae did something wrong.
Bae has been held in one of
North Korea's notorious prison camps for more than a year. His sister,
Terri Chung, told CNN that Rodman's comments were shocking.
was in a position to do some good and to help advocate for Kenneth," she
said. "He refused to do so. But then instead he has chosen to hurl
these outrageous accusations against Kenneth. He clearly doesn't know
anything about Kenneth, about his case. And so we were appalled by
Bae, a married father of three, has suffered a series of
health problems during his detention and has been transferred to a
hospital. She said her brother was in North Korea legally working as a
tour operator when he was arrested in November 2012.
"This isn't some game. This is about a person's life," she told CNN.
those playing with Rodman in Pyongyang were ex-All Stars Kenny
Anderson, Cliff Robinson and Vin Baker. Also on the roster were Craig
Hodges, Doug Christie, Charles D. Smith and four players who never
played in the NBA.
Smith said he and the other players did not join Rodman in singing the birthday song.
"We always tell Dennis that he can't sing. He is tone deaf," Smith said. "He did it alone."
brand of "diplomacy" has raised questions over whether U.S. players
should be engaging with one of the world's most repressive regimes.
Rodman says he wants to "open the door" of the highly isolated state,
and refuses to criticize Kim, his "friend for life" who had his uncle
executed last month.
Defying the U.S. State Department's warnings
against travel to North Korea, and with no support from the U.S.
government or the NBA, whose Commissioner David Stern has criticized
this latest trip, Rodman is paying his fourth visit to Pyongyang since
February last year.
The reclusive Kim, who rarely meets with any
foreign leaders or visitors to Pyongyang, has not even traveled to
neighboring China, his state's only significant ally, since he succeeded
his father, Kim Jong Il, in 2011 as the third generation of a family
dictatorship founded by grandfather Kim Il Sung.
Rodman has said
the game was a present for Kim Jung Un's birthday, which is said to be
Jan. 8, although his age remains unconfirmed as North Korea tightly
controls information on the ruling dynasty. As befits the world's
longest-running personality cult, which fills state media daily with
paeans of praises for the three Kims, their birthdays are major state
events in North Korea.
The most important national holiday, known officially as the "Day of
the Sun,'' marks the birthday of "Eternal President" Kim Il Sung, who
died in 1994. "The worship system is similar to what South Koreans do in
church, as Kim Il Sung is like God," Song Hyun Wook, a North Korean who
defected to the South, told USA TODAY last year in Seoul. The key
difference? "In North Korea, there is no choice, nor any exceptions" to
worshiping the Kim family, he said.
Kim Jung Un has continued the
personality cult of his father, and its military-first stance, and
sports in North Korea also serve this purpose. The colorful and very
public personal histories of Rodman and his fellow ex-NBA players stood
in dramatic contrast to their little-known opposition Wednesday. All
sporting success is automatically credited to the ruling family, and
their juche philosophy of self-reliance.
Aware of the controversy their trip has caused back home in the USA,
Smith remarked Tuesday of the players' disappointment at the negative
reactions and press coverage. "I feel a lot of remorse for the guys
because we are doing something positive, but it's a lot bigger than us,"
he said. "We're not skilled in those particular areas."
Still, some analysts believe cultural exchanges such as Rodman's can achieve positive impact.
decades, North Koreans have been told that the outside world is
destitute hell, characterized by extreme poverty and suffering," Andrei
Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, wrote
Tuesday on the NK News website. "People inside the North are beginning
to understand that they have been deceived, but it will do no harm if
their suspicions are confirmed," he said. "Isolation will not change
North Korea - only interaction with the outside world gives us some
reason to hope."
One immediate result may benefit deaf North
Koreans. On his last visit to North Korea, in December, Rodman met deaf
table-tennis players and officials from the Korea Federation for the
Protection of the Disabled. Rodman said earlier this week that proceeds
from Wednesday's game would go to a charity for the deaf in Pyongyang.
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