Rodman sings Happy Birthday to North Korean leader
Basketball player sparks controversy with suggestion US missionary to blame for captivity
Former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman (L) arrives at Pyongyang airport in Pyongyang. Photograph: Kyodo/Reuters
Dennis Rodman led an auditorium of North Koreans in singing “Happy Birthday” to their leader today, a day after the former US basketball star sparked controversy by appearing to suggest a Korean-American was to blame for his captivity in North Korea.
Rodman brought a team of fellow former National Basketball Association stars to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, to mark the birthday of leader Kim Jong Un with an exhibition game. The birthday is believed to have been today though that has not been confirmed.
“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,” said Simon Cockerell, a tour guide who watched the game in Pyongyang, said of Rodman’s birthday singing.
“It was unexpected, and probably unplanned,” he said. “Kim Jong Un appeared to smile, but he didn’t appear to expect it.”
Mr Cockerell, whose company Koryo Tours took a group of tourists to the game, said the audience had stood and cheered Kim for up to six minutes when he appeared with his wife.
“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’.”
This was Rodman’s fourth trip to Pyongyang. On previous visits, he spent time dining as a guest of Mr Kim, with whom he says he has a genuine friendship, though he did not meet Mr Kim on his third trip.
The visit come weeks after the execution of Mr Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who until then was one of the most powerful figures. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has described events in North Korea as a “reign of terror.”
Rodman has said he would not interfere in North Korea’s politics but he raised an outcry at home when, in a television interview yesterday , he appeared to suggest that Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae was to blame for his captivity.
During an expletive-ridden interview with CNN about his trip, Rodman seemed to say Mr Bae, held in North Korea since November 2012 and convicted in May on charges of crimes against the state, was responsible for his situation.
“If you understand what Kenneth Bae did ... Do you understand what he did in this country? Why is he held captive in this country?” Rodman said, declining to respond to questions to clarify what he meant.
Mr Bae’s sister, Terri Chung, said her family was “outraged” by his comments and he could “do a lot of good” by using his access to the North Korea leader to advocate on Mr Bae’s behalf, rather than “hurl outrageous accusations” at her brother.