SEOUL (Reuters) - Retired U.S. basketball player Dennis Rodman arrived in North Korea on Tuesday to film a television documentary with representatives of the Harlem Globetrotters celebrity team, North Korean state television reported.
Rodman, now 51 years old, won five NBA championships in his prime, achieving a mix of fame and notoriety for his on- and off-court antics.
Thirty-year-old North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who has launched two long-range rockets and carried out a nuclear weapons test during just over a year in power, is reported to be an avid NBA fan and had pictures taken with players from the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers during his school days in Switzerland.
Rodman, who sports trademark tattoos and piercings, played for the Bulls. The trip to Pyongyang was organized by a New York-based television production company, VICE.
“I think most of guys are first time here so hopefully everything is OK and hopefully kids have a good time for the game,” Rodman, sporting a baseball cap and sunglasses, told North Korea’s KCNA.
VICE, which has previously worked in North Korea, said the week-long trip would include running a basketball camp for North Korean children and engaging in community-based games.
The company hinted that Kim may attend one of its events, but that could not be independently verified.
Its North Korean footage with Rodman will be distributed on HBO in April.
U.S. citizens do not require clearance from home to visit North Korea, and Google Inc. Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson visited in January.
The U.S. State Department described that trip as ill-advised but was noncommittal on Rodman’s.
“We don’t vet U.S. citizens’ private travel to North Korea,” said State Department deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell. “In terms of this private travel to do basketball with kids, we just don’t take a position on this.”
The United States is leading a drive in the United Nations to have stricter sanctions imposed on North Korea following its nuclear test two weeks ago.
Kim, the third member of his family to rule North Korea, an isolated and impoverished state that has about 200,000 political prisoners in labor camps and where a third of children are malnourished, appears to have a penchant for American culture apart from basketball.
On coming to office, he staged a spectacular featuring a host of Disney characters. He has also been pictured at theme parks, in sharp contrast with his father’s austere appearances.
While there is no U.S.-government connection to Rodman’s trip, there have been a variety of attempts at sports diplomacy with North Korea, ranging from wrestling to judo and basketball.
None appears to have fared any better than the regular kind of diplomacy in preventing North Korea from pushing towards the acquisition of nuclear weapons.
As Rodman and his colleagues arrived, North Korean state news agency KCNA issued yet another challenge to the United States, saying it had no choice but to respond to what it called U.S. “provocations” over sanctions with “military muscle”.
Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in WASHINGTON; Editing by Ken Wills and David Brunnstrom