BEIJING – Former NBA star Dennis Rodman, the only foreigner with access to North Korea's reclusive dictator Kim Jong Un, returned from Pyongyang Monday defending his controversial "basketball diplomacy" there.
Americans and North Koreans "can actually get along," said Rodman, who apologized he "couldn't do anything" about Kenneth Bae, a Korean American missionary imprisoned in North Korea for more than a year.
Rodman will return to Pyongyang in about a month for another game of basketball, he said, following the exhibition game last Wednesday between a North Korean team and a Rodman-led team of a team of ex-NBA players and current streetballers.
The ex-Chicago Bulls forward sang Happy Birthday to Kim before tip-off, and spent the second half sitting beside the person he calls his "friend for life." Kim is reported to be a Chicago Bulls fan.
Rights groups and U.S. politicians have criticized Rodman for engaging with the North's repressive regime. While in Pyongyang, he was forced to apologize for comments last week that blamed Bae for his own incarceration.
At Beijing airport Monday, at the end of his fourth trip to Pyongyang over the past 12 months, Rodman said "I'm sorry that I couldn't do anything," when asked if had raised Bae's case with Kim.
Kim is the third generation of his family to rule North Korea with an iron grip. Kim had his uncle executed last month for "treason" and other alleged crimes.
Rodman thanked his host and claimed their unlikely relationship was "not a bad deal" for the world. "It is amazing that I had the opportunity just to go to North Korea, and for the Marshal to give me the opportunity just to be in his presence, in the city," he said, using North Korean's term for Kim. "Well, let's get this one thing straight, guys, get this one thing straight, this is not a bad deal."
Former boxer Mike Tyson has accused Rodman of committing treason, but the former all-star defended his patriotism and his purpose Monday. "I love my country America, I love it, I'd never trade it for nothing in the world," he said. Distancing himself from politics and "all that stuff," Rodman said "I'm not the president, I'm not an ambassador, I'm Dennis Rodman, just (an) individual. Just showing the world the fact that that we can actually get along and be happy for one day. I'd love to see (it).
"I just want to do some good stuff, that's all I want to do, basketball, that's all," said Rodman, who is reported to have visited Kim's new ski resort on the impoverished country's east coast. Simon Cockerell, general manager of the Beijing-based British tour operator Koryo Tours, blogged Monday that he had met Rodman there Sunday.
The multimillion dollar ski resort, built by the North's army in under a year, is a symbol of Kim's misrule, argue critics. It also reveals the sensitivity of dealing with heavily isolated and sanctioned North Korea. Several European ski equipment firms, whose products have been pictured at the Masik Pass resort, have denied they sold the items directly to North Korea. Such sales could break United Nations sanctions against "luxury" products, aimed at punishing Kim's regime for its nuclear program.
At least one of Rodman's 10 teammates, who all left North Korea last week, has expressed regrets about joining the trip. Eric "Sleepy" Floyd told ESPN Friday he was "misled" about the trip, did not expect to meet Kim Jong Un and said he tried to leave the day after the players arrived last Monday. Floyd was the first to leave, last Thursday.
Charles Smith, who has emerged as the spokesman for the players, offering a calmer voice and perspective than Rodman's often emotional and alcohol-influenced outbursts, told CNN Sunday he had no regrets about going to North Korea. He said the players were not paid by North Korea for the trip.
"Where it goes from there, I do not know at this point in time. But we established a relationship. They've asked us to come back," said Smith on CNN. "Whether we go back or not, I'm not sure. I don't know. But there was a relationship established between a group of individuals in two different countries that don't communicate."