Dennis Rodman Arrives in North Korea For Exhibition Match, Courts Controversy

Dennis Rodman Basketball Hall of Fame - P 2011
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Dennis Rodman Basketball Hall of Fame - P 2011

The Hall of Famer shrugs off criticism and hails his visit as "basketball diplomacy," comparing it to the Olympic Games.

Dennis Rodman arrived in the North Korean capital Pyongyang with a team of former NBA colleagues for a match to mark the birthday of Kim Jong-un, the leader of the secretive Stalinist enclave.

Among the dozen former stars in the squad that accompanied him from Beijing to the North Korean capital were Vin Baker, Kenny Anderson, Charles D. Smith and Cliff Robinson. The squad will play a North Korean team in an exhibition match on Wednesday (Jan. 8) to mark Kim's birthday.

Rodman has called Kim his "friend for life," and his growing closeness with North Korea has earned him criticism in Washington, which has led efforts to sanction North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.

Incredibly, Rodman is the highest-profile American to meet the young Kim since the leader inherited power after his father Kim Jong-un died in late 2011.

Activists, South Koreans and the State Department complain in equal measure that Rodman is giving legitimacy to a repressive regime with an appalling human rights record. Defectors have told of labor camps holding scores of thousands of people.

However, the Hall of Famer describes his visit as "basketball diplomacy."

"It's about trying to connect two countries together in the world, to let people know that: Do you know what? Not every country in the world is that bad, especially North Korea," Rodman told The Associated Press in an interview outside his Beijing hotel before his flight to North Korea. "People say so many negative things about North Korea. And I want people in the world to see it's not that bad."

He continued: "Somehow we have to get along, and no matter what disagreements or what discrepancy we have in life. It's like saying: Why do we have the Olympics? When everyone one comes together in the Olympics, there's no problems. That's what I'm doing. That's all I'm doing."

Rodman's previous visit to North Korea came shortly after Kim made global headlines for purging his uncle Chang Song-thaek as part of a shake-up at the top of the ruling Workers' Party. The once-powerful Chang was executed by machine gun.

The execution prompted fears about the stability of the regime and in her New Year's address, South Korean leader Park Geun-hye called the situation on the Korean peninsula "more grave than ever" and she called for dialogue between the two countries divided since the end of the Korean War in 1953.