BEIJING — Dennis Rodman apologized Thursday for his widely criticized comments about Kenneth Bae, a U.S. citizen detained in North Korea. The former NBA star, on his fourth day in Pyongyang, then courted further controversy by apparently heading to the new ski resort built as a pet project of Kim Jung Un, the impoverished nation's young dictator.
At an exhibition game Wednesday, Rodman sang Happy Birthday to Kim before his team of former NBA players and street ballers took on North Korean opponents. One player, Eric "Sleepy" Floyd, left Pyongyang Thursday but made no comment at Beijing airport.
U.S. tourists on Floyd's flight, who had watched the game live, praised Rodman's "basketball diplomacy" as worthwhile engagement that could open up communication with the highly isolated nation. The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, whose regime has threatened nuclear strikes against the USA.
In a statement to the Associated Press, Rodman apologized to the family of missionary Kenneth Bae for comments Tuesday in a CNN interview that appeared to blame Bae, a U.S. citizen born in South Korea, for being jailed inside North Korea. "It had been a very stressful day. Some of my teammates were leaving because of pressure from their families and business associates," he explained. "My dreams of basketball diplomacy were quickly falling apart. I had been drinking," and felt "overwhelmed" by the time of the interview, said Rodman.
After rekindling his year-long friendship with Kim Wednesday night, when they sat together for the game's second half, Rodman and other U.S. team members reportedly flew Thursday to the multimillion-dollar Masik Pass ski resort that Kim has had built in under a year. It is not yet known if Kim accompanied them.
"I believe some of the players are going skiing," Sean Agnew, 36, from Philadelphia, said at Beijing airport Thursday after flying in from Pyongyang. Agnew had joined a four-day tour to North Korea to watch the game, mix with players postgame, and experience a little-visited destination, despite the U.S. State Department's warnings to U.S. citizens not to visit.
Agnew's report could not be independently verified, and information emanating out of the isolated nation is extremely tightly controlled.
However, the Reuters news agency quoted an unnamed source "with direct knowledge of Rodman's itinerary" who said the 52-year-old flew by helicopter to the ski resort, one of Kim's showcase projects, built by the North Korean army. The Swiss government called it a propaganda project when it blocked the sale of a ski lift last year to North Korea, out of concerns the deal would breach United Nations sanctions on "luxury" items.
U.S. tourists who left Pyongyang Thursday welcomed Rodman's efforts, despite the firestorm back home. "Any kind of engagement I think is worth it, genuinely," said Hakan Sokmensuer, 55, a retired executive from Sarasota, Fla., who also visited Cuba last year. "I understand fully the criticism. But historically engagement is what solves things, over centuries," he said.
Rodman's visit, his fourth since last February, "helps with the attitudes of Korean people, because it's in the newspaper 'Americans coming,' it could open up small lines, small channels of communication. We'll see in a few months whether it works," said Agnew, who owns a rock venue in Philadelphia but doubts he could open one in Pyongyang. "No," he laughed. "It doesn't seem that's happening there too much."
Rodman serenading Kim with Happy Birthday before tip-off resembled Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy, said New York University student Sophia Sokmensuer, 18, at Beijing airport. "No one really knew how to sing it, I started singing but I realize no one else was singing, so I stopped," but the 14,000-strong crowd soon clapped instead, she said. Rodman and Kim "seemed very relaxed with each other," she said.
Her father, Hakan, said the pin-drop silence for 45 minutes before the game, unthinkable at a U.S. sports event, ended with a "stirring roar" to greet Kim's arrival. Sokmensuer noticed clear changes in Pyongyang from a visit four years ago, with another of his four daughters. "Architecturally, cars on the street, people are wearing colors, there's more lights, more electricity," he said. "I don't know if the mind-set changes, but certainly they are doing something to make people feel better."