A few days after arriving in Pyongyang with a TV crew and the Harlem Globetrotters, Dennis Rodman and the supreme leader of the reclusive nation spent time together on the sidelines of a friendly basketball match between the U.S. team and the North Koreans.
The state-run Xinhua News Agency is reporting that former NBA star and tabloid target Rodman sat with Kim as they watched a friendly game between 12 North Korean players and four Harlem Globetrotters, who were divided evenly into two teams. According to witnesses, the game ended with a 110-110 draw, but much attention was paid on the unlikely pair, who sat next to each other chatting and laughing without any translators.
“Although relations between the two countries [America and the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea] are regrettable, personally I am a friend of Marshal Kim Jong Un and the DPRK people,” Rodman said after the game.
The news of the young leader, 30, taking the time to entertain such personalities as the unpredictable Dennis Rodman or taking in the goofy antics of the Harlem Globetrotters entertainment-basketball team shocked many observers and foreign journalists. After all, North Korea has seen a handful of top leaders come through, such as former U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and high-profile Americans such as Google chief Eric Schmidt, all without meeting the country's supreme leader. (Rodman isn't in any case the first sports figure to go to Pyongyang; Mohammed Ali, the legendary boxer, visited in 1995. He didn't get to meet then-leader Kim Jong Il, either.)
However, perhaps Kim Jong Un’s special interest in basketball and particular passion for the Chicago Bulls (Rodman won three NBA championships as a Bull in the 1990s) led to the friendly courtside banter. According to various accounts from supposed former classmates during Kim’s Swiss schooling, the scion of the North Korean dynasty loved basketball.
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“He was a big fan of the Chicago Bulls. ... His life was basketball at this time,” Joao Micaelo, a former schoolmate of Kim at the German-language Liebefeld-Steinhoelzli public school in Berne, Switzerland, said to Reuters. “I think 80 percent of our time we were playing basketball.”
Kim allegedly attended the Steinhoelzli school from 1998-2000 under the pseudonym Pak Un before abruptly leaving in the middle of the school year. Other students who knew Pak-Un during his time there remember him as basketball-obsessed.
According to a 2009 report in the Washington Post, just like any normal teenager, he decorated his room with his favorite teams' memorabilia.
“He proudly showed off photographs of himself standing with Toni Kukoc of the Chicago Bulls and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers. It is unclear where the pictures were taken. On at least one occasion, a car from the North Korean Embassy drove Pak Un to Paris to watch an NBA exhibition game,” the report said.
Many reporters are speculating that Dennis Rodman is the first American that Kim has met. However, with his Western schooling -- not only at the Steinhoelzli School, but supposedly at the International School of Berne as well -- it is likely that Kim has had either American teachers or classmates. It is unclear if Kim actually attended the International School of Berne, because the registered student was named Pak Chol and could have also been Kim’s older brother. At the very least, however, Kim’s connections at the time apparently scored him some rare photo ops with some American basketball stars, long before his meeting with Rodman.
The report by the Washington Post also said his former classmates barely recalled Kim having any interest in politics or expressing anti-American sentiment, but on the court his leadership and drive that the world has now become more familiar with were evident.
“He was very explosive. He could make things happen. He was the playmaker,” former classmate Nikola Kovacevic said. “If I wasn’t sure I could make a shot, I always knew he could.”
“He hated to lose. Winning was very important,” Marco Imhof, another basketball buddy, added.