Dennis Rodman shocked the world – again – when he sang “Happy Birthday” to North Korea’s infamous dictator Kim Jong Un during a private basketball game in Pyongyang on Wednesday. According to the Associated Press, Rodman dedicated the game to his “best friend” Kim, who watched Rodman and several other former NBA players shoot hoops at the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium on his birthday.
"A lot of people have expressed different views about me and your leader, your marshal, and I take that as a compliment," Rodman told the crowd, according to the AP. "Yes, he is a great leader, he provides for his people here in this country and thank God the people here love the marshal."
Rodman and a team of fellow former NBA stars traveled to North Korea to help celebrate Kim’s 31st birthday. The team from the U.S. played an exhibition game against the North Korean national basketball team. During the second half, the players mixed it up so that both teams had American and North Korean players. Rodman played the first half, and then joined Kim in the bleachers during the second.
At one point, Rodman led the crowd in serenading their leader with Rodman’s rendition of the birthday song.
“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, told Reuters. “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’.”
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Wednesday’s basketball game was Rodman’s fourth trip to North Korea, one of the world’s most notorious totalitarian states, to visit its leader, 31-year-old Kim. Rodman is the highest-profile American to meet North Korea’s leader. He has raised eyebrows over what he calls “basketball diplomacy,” which he has described as a way to bridge cultural gaps between Washington and Pyongyang. Rodman has said in the past his visits have a political purpose, but critics demur, saying the former NBA star who is known for his history of strange antics doesn’t know what he’s getting into.
The U.S. government was not involved with the visits, and some lawmakers have condemned Rodman’s trips to Pyongyang as naïve and foolish, citing Kim’s spate of threats to use nuclear weapons against the U.S. last year as well as North Korea’s track record of human rights abuses. Just a few weeks ago, Kim’s uncle Jang Song Thaek, who was regarded as the second-most powerful figure in North Korea, was purged over allegations that he tried to overthrow the government, and executed, reportedly torn apart by dogs.
Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has also criticized Rodman’s visits to Pyongyang. Richardson, who worked to secure the release of an American held in North Korea in 1996 and has visited North Korea multiple times, said Rodman "drank a little bit too much of the Kool-Aid from the North Koreans,” according to CNN.