Dennis Rodman’s latest attempt at “Basketball Diplomacy” has officials in the U.S. government and the National Basketball Association (NBA) calling for the cancellation of an exhibition match scheduled to coincide with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s 31st birthday.
The retired Hall of Famer and ex-Chicago Bulls star, who arrived in Pyongyang for the fourth time yesterday, was accompanied by six NBA veterans who will participate in the game – which Rodman has referred to as a “birthday present” for the increasingly volatile Kim and the citizens of North Korea.
New York Democrat Eliot Engel, the minority leader of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, gave a scathing assessment of Rodman’s current trip – likening it to “inviting Adolf Hitler to lunch.”
“I don’t think we should ignore the real suffering in this gulag state,” Engel said at a press conference in New York City, where he was accompanied by a mother and daughter who had fled the Hermit Kingdom. “What Dennis Rodman is doing is very ill conceived.”
Engel, who has visited North Korea twice, was possibly incensed by comments made by Rodman before departing Beijing for Pyongyang on Monday.
“People say so many negative things about North Korea and I want people in the world to see it’s not that bad,” he told reporters outside of his hotel, adding “I am not worried about his uncle” when pressed about the recent execution of Jang Song-thaek.
Though Rodman calls his visits “Basketball Diplomacy,” he has refused to discuss hot-button political issues such as the release of American hostage Kenneth Bae or widespread malnutrition among North Korean citizens.
“I am not going to sit there and go ‘Hey guy, you are doing the wrong thing,’” Rodman said. “That is not the right way to do it. He is my friend first and I love him.”
The commissioner of the NBA, David Stern, released his own scathing opinion of Rodman’s visit:
“The NBA is not involved with Mr. Rodman’s North Korea trip and would not participate or support such a venture without the approval of the U.S. State Department. Although sports in many instances can be helpful in bridging cultural divides, this is not one of them.”
The six former NBA players that have joined Rodman in Pyongyang include three fellow All-Stars, Kenny Anderson, Cliff Robinson and Vin Baker. The other three members are Sleepy Floyd, Doug Christie and Charles D. Smith. They have pasts as colorful as Rodman’s changing hair – including DUI arrests, drug abuse, bankruptcies, and a connection to the adult film industry.
In order to keep Wednesday’s exhibition game friendly, the NBA team will only face the North Koreans for the first half – in the second half, the opposing teams will mix together.
Americans are considered enemies of North Korea, with Kim frequently threatening nuclear war against the U.S. Rodman, who has been given the VIP treatment since his first visit in February 2013, is a rare exception.