SEOUL (Reuters) - Former U.S. basketball star Dennis Rodman led an auditorium of North Koreans in singing “Happy Birthday” to their leader on Wednesday, a day after he sparked controversy by appearing to suggest a Korean-American was to blame for his captivity in North Korea.
Rodman brought a team of fellow former National Basketball Association stars to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, to mark the birthday of leader Kim Jong Un with an exhibition game. The birthday is believed to have been on Wednesday though that has not been confirmed.
“It started out as surreal, then people joined in and it sort of faded a bit, but it seemed pretty heartfelt from Rodman’s side,” Simon Cockerell, a tour guide who watched the game in Pyongyang, said of Rodman’s birthday singing.
“It was unexpected, and probably unplanned,” he said. “Kim Jong Un appeared to smile, but he didn’t appear to expect it.”
Cockerell, whose company Koryo Tours took a group of tourists to the game, said the audience had stood and cheered Kim for up to six minutes when he appeared with his wife.
“Dennis Rodman gave a charmingly shambolic speech where he thanked Kim Jong Un and his wife for showing up, along with the other players for being brave enough to come with him and join in his ‘engagement effort’.”
This was Rodman’s fourth trip to Pyongyang. On previous visits he spent time dining as a guest of Kim, with whom he says he has a genuine friendship.
The visit come weeks after the execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who until then was one of the most powerful figures. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has described events in North Korea as a “reign of terror”.
Rodman has said he would not interfere in North Korea’s politics but he raised an outcry at home when, in a television interview on Tuesday, he appeared to suggest that Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae was to blame for his captivity.
During an interview with CNN about his trip, Rodman seemed to say Bae, held in North Korea since November 2012 and convicted in May on charges of crimes against the state, was responsible for his situation.
“If you understand what Kenneth Bae did ... Do you understand what he did in this country? Why is he held captive in this country?” Rodman said, declining to respond to questions to clarify what he meant.
Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a periodic troubleshooter on North Korean issues, told CNN on Wednesday Rodman’s comments were damaging and said North Koreans were clearly using him to get a message to the United States.
“I think what’s most reprehensible is his implication that Kenneth Bae, an American detained on very spurious charges who deserves to come home, might be guilty,” said Richardson, who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the 1990s.
“Obviously, Rodman was briefed by the North Koreans. They see him as their link to the United States because they don’t want to talk to us,” he said.
Bae’s sister, Terri Chung, said her family was outraged by Rodman’s comments and he could do a lot of good by using his access to the North Korea leader to advocate on Bae’s behalf, rather than “hurl outrageous accusations” at her brother.
“He is playing games with my brother’s life,” Chung said in a statement. “There is no diplomacy, only games, and at my brother’s expense.”
“He is clearly uninformed about Kenneth’s case, and he is certainly not in any position to pass judgment,” Chung said, adding that Bae never had hostile intentions against the state.
Asked about Rodman’s comments, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters: “I’m not going to dignify that outburst with a response,” emphasizing that the trip was private travel not endorsed by the U.S. government.
“I’m simply going to say that we remain gravely concerned about Kenneth Bae’s health, and continue to urge DPRK authorities to grant his amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds,” Carney said.
Bae, 45, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for state subversion in North Korea. He was detained in 2012 as he led a tour group through the north of the country. North Korea’s Supreme Court said he used his tourism business to form groups aimed at overthrowing the government.
Following a visit to her son in October, Bae’s mother, Myunghee Bae, said her son was “alone and ailing”.
A devout Christian, Bae has acknowledged he conducted religious services in North Korea, which has long been hostile to Westerners advocating religious causes.
U.S. Representative Eliot Engel, the leading Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, criticized Rodman and the other Americans for what he called an ill-advised trip.
“As North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un continues to starve and oppress his citizens, it is unthinkable that a few fading celebrities would use such an opportunity to reward his brutal regime,” he said.
Reporting by James Pearson in Seoul, Doina Chiacu, Roberta Rampton, Patricia Zengerle in Washington, Eric Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Stephen Powell