Karl Penhaul and Katie Hunt, BEIJING (CNN) — Eccentric basketball star Dennis Rodman and several other former NBA players have arrived in North Korea to take part in a controversial basketball game on the birthday of Kim Jong-Un, the country’s young, unpredictable leader.
The friendly contest is planned for Wednesday, when Kim is believed to turn 31, and features a number of NBA old-timers.
It takes place just weeks after North Korea shocked the world by announcing the purge and execution of Kim’s once-powerful uncle.
Darren Prince, Rodman’s agent for 16 years, told CNN on Sunday that Kenny Anderson, Cliff Robinson, Vin Baker, Craig Hodges, Doug Christie, and Charles D. Smith would play against the North Korean Senior National Team.
As they waited at Beijing airport for their flight on North Korean carrier Air Koryo, Rodman and his teammates told CNN that the main purpose of the trip was sport.
Rodman said it was not his job to address concerns about the repressive state and lobby for the release of detained U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae.
“I’m going to try and interact with him (Kim Jong Un) on that point of love for sports. He loves sports. I like the guy, and he’s an awesome guy to me,” Rodman said. “One thing is about showing people we can actually get along. Let’s get along as human beings, not politicians.”
It will be Rodman’s fourth trip to the secretive and isolated nation, part of a project he has described as “basketball diplomacy.”
But the U.S. State Department says that it has nothing to do with Rodman’s visits to North Korea and that attention should be focused on the brutality of Kim’s regime.
‘Friend for life’
Rodman, 52, struck up an unlikely friendship with Kim when he traveled to North Korea for the first time in February, bringing a team of Harlem Globetrotters for an exhibition game watched by Kim, who is a basketball fan.
Kim later met and dined with the flamboyant basketball star, and Rodman told his host he “had a friend for life,” shrugging off international condemnation of the country’s human rights record.
However, on his last trip, which took place last month less than a week after North Korea announced the execution of Kim’s uncle and top aide, Jang Song Thaek, Rodman didn’t get to meet Kim.
The international outcry over the killing of Jang prompted Paddy Power, the online betting company that had supported Rodman’s project, to withdraw its association with the event.
But Rodman has pressed on with the plan.
“I’m looking forward to playing and putting on a show in North Korea. This is strictly about the game and for the love of basketball,” Rodman teammate Vin Baker told CNN at the departure gate, where the players posed for photos with fellow travelers.
Three additional former NBA players will be added to the team in coming days and will be traveling independently to Pyongyang with their assistants, Rodman’s agent said Sunday.
Rodman met and coached the North Korean team on his most recent trip. But Cho Sung-Won, a South Korean basketball player who played against North Korea in 1999, said Rodman should not underestimate the side:
“The North Koreans were quite strong, well-built and tall as well,” he said. “They were very determined not to lose against South Korea. It was a friendly match, but I was a bit intimidated.”
Cho was skeptical about Rodman’s diplomatic aims.
“I don’t know Dennis Rodman personally, but he is quite peculiar and does unexpected things,” he said.
“I think he went to North Korea as a publicity stunt,” Cho said. “On the other hand, North Korea plays some high-quality basketball, so they could learn from his experience.”
South Korean table tennis player Hyun Jung-Wha, who was part of a joint Korean team that took part in the 1991 World Championships, praised Rodman’s bid to break the ice with Pyongyang.
“What Dennis Rodman is doing now is personal, but I think he’s brave for doing it,” she told CNN.
“I believe sports definitely can help diplomacy,” Hyun said. “Sportsmanship is pure, and I think diplomatic results can come out through sports.”
But the U.S. government appears to be unconvinced.
“I know it’s amusing or maybe interesting to talk about Dennis Rodman, but I actually think the focus really should be on the brutality of the North Korean regime he’s going to meet with,” Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said last month at the time of Rodman’s previous trip.
CNN’s AnneClaire Stapleton, Steve Forrest and Charlie Miller contributed to this report.