Former NBA star Dennis Rodman isn’t going to let something like the execution of a trusted confidante get in the way of his friendship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, pledging to return to the isolated country later this week.
Rodman infamously first visited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea earlier this year, travelling with a crew from VICE and three Harlem Globetrotters. While there, Rodman bonded with the North Korean leader, taking in the basketball exhibition with Kim sitting next to him, and later declared the dictator a “friend for life.” In interviews following his return, the former NBA champion insisted that Kim was misunderstood and didn’t want any trouble from the United States.
Now, according to the New York Times, Rodman is returning to help train the country’s basketball stars as he previously promised. Rodman is due to “arrive in Beijing later in the day and then travel to North Korea on Thursday with a documentary film crew,” Rory Scott, a spokesman for the Irish online betting company, Paddy Power of Dublin, that’s funding the trip. Rodman is due to return from North Korea on Monday.
“We spoke to a lot of experts who said it’s safe for foreigners to travel to North Korea,” Scott told the Times. That was not the case for U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae, who has been held in North Korea since last November. Rodman promised in August to help free Bae, who was sentenced to 15 years hard labor, before reversing course after arriving in Pyongyang in September for his second visit. Bae’s family and friends have slammed Rodman for not fulfilling his promise and the way he “folded like a cheap tent” before Kim.
When asked about Rodman’s travel on Monday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf had yet to hear about the ex-NBA player’s itinerary. “I can double-check with our team,” Harf said. “Again, he is not there on behalf of the U.S. Government, never has been, but I’m happy to check with our folks.” Following Rodman’s first and second visits, the United States declined to debrief the first Westerner to meet with Kim after his ascension two years ago.
Rodman’s visit may well come as a relief to Kim, given the recent internal drama that has been playing out in the DPRK. Last week, North Korean media announced the execution of Jang Song-Thaek, Kim’s uncle, for charges of treason and other crimes against the state. The extremely public rendering of guilt played against the normal type for the regime and was a rapid reversal of fate for Jang, who had been previously depicted as a kindly uncle and possibly the real power behind the throne.
It is unlikely, however, that Rodman will bring up that touchy subject — or any other for that matter — while in Pyongyang. While not coaching the North Korean Olympic basketball team, he will be working with other basketball players in the country, which will surely take any free time that could be spent visiting the camps that one U.N. investigator said “the like of which I don’t think I’ve seen or read of since [...] the Nazi atrocities.”