Former basketball legend Dennis Rodman left North Korea today, calling the Kim family “great leaders” as he said goodbye to journalists at Pyongyang’s Sunan Airport.
In remarks about his time spent with Kim Jong Un, Rodman said, “He’s proud, his country likes him – not like him, love him, love him…[And] guess what, his grandfather, and his father were great leaders…he’s such a proud man.” He further added, “I love him. The guy’s really awesome.”
Yesterday, Rodman broke world news by becoming the first high profile American visitor to meet North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong Un. The unlikely pair watched a basketball game between the visiting U.S. delegation and an unspecified local team. Sitting next to Kim Jong Un, North Korean state media outlet described their initial encounter, “Dennis Rodman went up to the auditorium to bow to Kim Jong Un….Warmly welcoming him, Kim Jong Un let him sit next to him.”
Wearing dark glasses and drinking a can of Coca Cola, Rodman apparently chatted without translators to Kim Jong Un throughout the game. The match ended in a 110-110 draw, with 12 DPRK players and four players from the U.S. team Harlem Globetrotters divided into two teams. Rodman said afterwards that “although relations between the two countries are regrettable, personally I am a friend of Marshal Kim Jong Un and the DPRK people.”
Following the game, North Korean state media outlet KCNA reported that the group went for a dinner with Kim Jong Un, who expressed his “expectation that [further] such sports exchange would be activated, contributing to promoting mutual understanding between the peoples of the two countries”. A VICE Media staff member at the dinner Tweeted last night, “Um… so Kim Jong Un just got the #VICEonHBO crew wasted… no really, that happened.”
Spending five days in North Korea, Rodman’s delegation also took in a number of recently built tourist sites. KCNA reported that the group “spent a good time watching dolphins dancing to the tune of cheerful music, jumping in group, spinning rings, jumping into the air and shaking hands with people.”
Reacting to the news, North Korea expert Leonid Petrov today told NK NEWS,
This week Kim Jong-Un has really surprised the world. Like a talented film director he changes the pace of the unfolding drama with new turns in the plot. The December rocket launch was overshadowed by the visit of Google’s CEO. The February nuclear test suddenly looked boring when an ex-NBA star and the Supreme Leader set together to cheer the basketball exhibition. Will the next visitor to Pyongyang be a game-changer?
In stark contrast to Google Chairman Eric Schmidt’s January trip to North Korea, the Rodman delegation was covered in close detail by North Korean media. Making front page news in today’s edition of Rodong Sinmun (North Korea’s main newspaper), DPRK TV and radio news bulletins all led with the story both last night and this morning. Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University, told Yonhap News today, “North Korea is likely to show off an image of openness about Kim Jong Un by displaying Rodman’s visit at home and overseas.”
A picture released of Rodman’s farewell today showed Kim Jong Un hugging him, with North Korea’s world-famous basketball player Ri Myung Hun clearly visible in the background. As the only North Korean basketball player that an NBA team was ever interested in, Ri is known to be the world’s tallest basketball player, standing at nearly 8 foot tall.
In an exclusive report for NK NEWS, journalist Nate Thayer yesterday described how the Rodman visit likely came to be. “Kim Jong Un and his brother Kim Jong Chol are known to be ardent fans of American basketball, with Kim Jong Un reported to have had posters of basketball star Michael Jordan on his wall during his schooldays and his brother, Kim Jong Chol, once photographed in Switzerland wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey with Dennis Rodman’s number on it.
Rodman’s visit comes at a sensitive time for South Korea and the United State’s relationship with North Korea. North Korea tested a nuclear device last month and launched a satellite into orbit, despite widespread international pressure against it. Currently, the UN Security Council is working to try and develop a suitable response to the third nuclear test.
Picture: Rodong Sinmun Cover