WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Dennis Rodman, the former NBA star known more for his body piercings and tattoos than international diplomacy skills, said on Sunday he returned from North Korea with a message from its leader Kim Jong-un for President Barack Obama - “call me.”
Rodman appeared on ABC’s “This Week” program a few days after an unlikely meeting with Kim in the North Korea capital Pyongyang, where Rodman was working on a documentary about basketball.
With the international community concerned about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and continued belligerence, Rodman had extremely rare access to Kim. They attended a basketball game, where they were seen laughing and talking at courtside, and also had dinner together.
“He wants Obama to do one thing - call him,” Rodman said. “He said, ‘If you can, Dennis - I don’t want (to) do war. I don’t want to do war.’ He said that to me.”
Rodman said he told Kim, who followed his father and grandfather as leader of the isolated totalitarian nation in December 2011, that his love of basketball could serve as a foundation of a relationship with the U.S. president, who also is a basketball fan and plays regularly.
“(Kim) loves basketball. And I said the same thing. I said, ‘Obama loves basketball.’ Let’s start there,” Rodman said.
The U.S. government disavowed any connection to Rodman’s trip. When asked about Kim’s “call me” message, Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said on Sunday the United States already has communication channels with North Korea.
“We have urged the North Korean leadership to heed President Obama’s call to choose the path of peace and come into compliance with its international obligations,” Hayden said. “Instead of spending money on staging sporting events, the North Korean regime should focus on the well-being of its own people who have been starved, imprisoned and denied their human rights.”
Last week, Rodman spoke warmly of Kim, 30, and described him as “an awesome kid.”
On “This Week,” he defended his new friendship with a man considered a violator of human rights and a threat to world peace by saying, “I‘m not apologizing for him. You know, he’s a good guy to me. Guess what? He’s my friend. I don’t condone what he does ... (but) as a person to person - he’s my friend.”
When pressed on North Korea’s human rights record, Rodman said, “But as far as what he does, you deal with it.”
Rodman, appearing in the interview wearing a jacket covered with images of U.S. dollars, a baseball cap and big sunglasses, dismissed Kim’s comments about wanting to destroy the United States as rhetoric stemming from his father.
He called him a strong and “very humble” man who “loves power, he loves control.”
Rodman said he intends to return to North Korea someday.
Rodman played on five NBA championship teams during his basketball career, which ran from 1986 to 2000. He played for five teams and in his peak years he was the league’s top rebounder and one of its best defenders. He was chosen for the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011.
Rodman’s basketball skills were matched by his flamboyance - party lifestyle, multi-colored hair, blankets of tattoos, piercings in his ears, nose, lips and eyebrows and showing up in a wedding gown, complete with veil, to promote his autobiography.
Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Will Dunham