New York Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel condemned former NBA star Dennis Rodman’s upcoming basketball match in North Korea as “bizarre and grotesque,” likening it to sitting down to lunch with Adolf Hitler.
Engel joined a mother and daughter who escaped North Korea at a press conference in New York City Monday to urge Rodman and his team of former NBA stars to call off the game.
“I don’t think we should ignore the real suffering in this gulag state,” said Eliot Engel, the minority leader of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs who has twice visited the communist state. “And Dennis Rodman wants to go there and play basketball. It would be like inviting Adolf Hitler to lunch.”
“What Dennis Rodman is doing is very ill conceived,” said Engel, who said he is working on bipartisan legislation to expand and enforce sanctions on North Korea. Rodman arrived in the capital Pyongyang Monday with his team—including All-Stars Kenny Anderson and Cliff Robinson—to participate in an exhibition match Wednesday to celebrate leader Kim Jong Un’s birthday.
The NBA star, now on his fourth visit, has drawn the international spotlight for his friendship with the leader of the insular and highly authoritarian nation—a relationship the media has dubbed “basketball diplomacy” even though Rodman says he won’t talk politics with Kim, who he has called a “friend for life.”
“People say so many negative things about North Korea. And I want people in the world to see it’s not that bad,” Rodman told the Associate Press in Beijing before leaving for Pyongyang Monday.
“Whatever he does political-wise, that’s not my job. I’m just an athlete, an individual who wants to go over there and play something for the world,” he told reporters at the airport in Beijing, Reuters reports.
Activists say North Korea has one of the worst human rights track records in the world, with as many as 120,000 political opponents in prison. The nuclear-armed country has also repeatedly threatened its neighbors and the United States.
Rodman, by far the highest profile American to meet Kim since he took power in 2011 from his late father, has disappointed activists by saying he will not raise human rights issues or seek the release of foreigners held by North Korean authorities, including an American veteran of the Korean War who was detained in Pyongyang in October and held for more than a month.
“North Korea is arguably the worst human rights violator in the world,” Suzanne Chelti, chairman of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, said at the press conference Monday, organized by the Wiesenthal Center and Museums of Tolerance. “At this point for Dennis Rodman and these players to participate in a propaganda coup for the regime, is a terrible setback for the human rights movement. We’re calling upon these players not to participate in this charade.”
Jo Jin Hye, a 26-year-old North Korean escapee who fled the country with her mother and sister and now lives in Virginia, echoed the appeal to call off the match. Jo had previously testified before a United Nations commission on human rights abuses in the country.
“I want to say, NBA player people, please don’t make Kim Jong Un happy. And I want to say if you want to help North Korea, just help normal people like us. Just the North Korean people, not the North Korean government,” he said.