Former NBA star Dennis Rodman angrily defended his trip to North Korea and his bizarre friendship with dictator Kim Jong Un on Tuesday, even as he stumbled to provide a rationale for his latest excursion to the isolated country.
“It’s a great idea for the world,” Rodman said in an interview with CNN, later adding that the trip could help “open the door a little bit” to the world.
Rodman is in North Korea for the fourth time with a team of former NBA players — including ex-All-Stars Kenny Anderson and Cliff Robinson — to play an exhibition match Wednesday in celebration of Kim’s birthday. Activists have long condemned his relationship with the head of the insular and highly authoritarian regime, and critics are up in arms about his latest venture honoring Kim.
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“Why do you think this is a good idea?” CNN’s Chris Cuomo asked Rodman, who was surrounded by fellow former NBA players.
Rodman, cigar in hand, said the trip was good for the world and added, apparently referring to Kim: “I love my friend. This is my friend.”
Later, Rodman asked, as a reminder, if people realize “this guy is only 31 years old.”
At another point, the former NBA star grew angry and began yelling at Cuomo. “I don’t give a rat’s ass what the hell you think,” he said. “You are the guy behind the mike right now … We are the guys who have to go back to America and take the abuse.”
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, and Kim last month publicly purged and then executed his high-level uncle. The nuclear-armed country has also repeatedly threatened its neighbors and the U.S., and has held U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae since late 2012.
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White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters later on Tuesday that Rodman had not contacted the government prior to his trip, adding that the U.S. does not vet a private citizen’s travel to North Korea. He declined to comment on Rodman’s CNN interview, in which the former NBA player also suggested that Bae had done something wrong without saying what it was.
“I’m not going to dignify that outburst with a response,” Carney said. “I’m simply going to say that we remain gravely concerned about Kenneth Bae’s health and continue to urge DPRK authorities to grant his amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds.”
At a news conference Monday condemning the trip, New York Democratic Representative Eliot Engel likened playing in the exhibition match to sitting down with Adolf Hitler.
“I don’t think we should ignore the real suffering in this gulag state,” said Engel, the minority leader of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. “And Dennis Rodman wants to go there and play basketball. It would be like inviting Adolf Hitler to lunch.”
During the CNN interview, former NBA player Charles Smith at times stepped in to respond to Cuomo’s questions.
“Outside of what people know of Dennis, you don’t know Dennis. This guy’s got a great heart,” Smith said. “His passion is about children and families. That’s why were here. We’re here because it’s about doing great will around the world.”
— With reporting by Zeke J. Miller