By Jean H. Lee
The Associated Press
PYONGYANG, North Korea — Former NBA star Dennis Rodman brought his basketball skills and flamboyant style — tattoos, nose studs and all — on Tuesday to a country with possibly the world’s strictest dress code: North Korea.
Arriving in Pyongyang, the American athlete and showman known as “The Worm” became an unlikely ambassador for sports diplomacy at a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. Or maybe not so unlikely: Young leader Kim Jong Un is said to have been a fan of the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, when Rodman won three championships with the club.
Rodman is joining three members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team and a VICE correspondent for a news show on North Korea that will air on HBO later this year, VICE producers told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Tuesday before they landed.
“It’s my first time, I think it’s most of these guys’ first time here, so hopefully everything’s going to be OK, and hoping the kids have a good time for the game,” Rodman told reporters after arriving in Pyongyang.
Rodman and VICE’s producers said the Americans hope to engage in a little “basketball diplomacy” by running a basketball camp for children and playing with North Korea’s top basketball stars.
“Is sending the Harlem Globetrotters and Dennis Rodman to the DPRK strange? In a word, yes,” said Shane Smith, the VICE founder who is host of the upcoming series, referring to North Korea by the initials of its formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “But finding common ground on the basketball court is a beautiful thing.”
The notoriously unpredictable and irrepressible Rodman might seem an odd fit for regimented North Korea, where men’s fashion rarely ventures beyond military khaki and where growing facial hair is forbidden.
Shown a photo of a snarling Rodman, piercings dangling from his lower lip and two massive tattoos emblazoned on his chest, one North Korean in Pyongyang recoiled and said: “He looks like a monster!”
But Rodman is also a Hall of Fame basketball player and one of the best defenders and rebounders to ever play the game. During a storied, often controversial career, he won five NBA championships — a feat appreciated even in North Korea.
Rodman, now 51, was low-key and soft-spoken Tuesday in cobalt blue sweatpants and a Polo Ralph Lauren cap. There was a bit of flash: white-rimmed sunglasses and studs in his nose and lower lip. But he told AP he was there to teach basketball and talk to people, not to stir up trouble.
Showier were three Harlem Globetrotters dressed in fire-engine red. Rookie Moose Weekes flashed the crowd a huge smile as he made his way off the Air Koryo plane.
“We use the basketball as a tool to build cultural ties, build bridges among countries,” said Buckets Blakes, a Globetrotters veteran. “We’re all about happiness and joy and making people smile.”
Rodman’s trip is the second high-profile American visit this year to North Korea, a country that remains in a state of war with the U.S. It also comes two weeks after North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test in defiance of U.N. bans against atomic and missile activity.
Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, made a surprise four-day trip in January to Pyongyang, where he met with officials and toured computer labs, just weeks after North Korea launched a satellite into space on the back of a long-range rocket.
Washington, Tokyo, Seoul and others consider both the rocket launch and the nuclear test provocative acts that threaten regional security.
VICE, known for its sometimes irreverent journalism, has made two previous visits to North Korea, coming out with the “VICE Guide to North Korea.” The HBO series, which will air weekly starting April 5, features documentary-style news reports from around the world.
Promoting technology and sports are two major policy priorities of Kim Jong Un, who took power in December 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
Along with soccer, basketball is enormously popular in North Korea, where it’s not uncommon to see basketball hoops set up in hotel parking lots or in schoolyards.
The U.S. remains Enemy No. 1 in North Korea, and North Koreans have limited exposure to American pop culture. But they know Michael Jordan, a former teammate of Rodman’s when they both played for the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s.
During a historic visit to North Korea in 2000, then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright presented Kim Jong Il, famously an NBA fan, with a basketball signed by Jordan that later went on display in the huge cave at Mount Myohyang that holds gifts to the leaders.
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