PYONGYANG, North Korea — Former NBA star Dennis Rodman brought his basketball skills and flamboyant style—tattoos, nose studs and all—to the 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 US 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 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 North Korea on Tuesday.
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 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 US It also comes two weeks after North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test in defiance of UN 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.
North Korea characterizes the satellite launch as a peaceful bid to explore space, but says the nuclear test was meant as a deliberate warning to Washington. Pyongyang says it needs to build nuclear weapons to defend itself against the US, and is believed to be trying to build an atomic bomb small enough to mount on a missile capable of reaching the mainland US.
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.
The Americans also will visit North Korea’s national monuments, the SEK animation studio and a new skate park in Pyongyang.
The US State Department hasn’t been contacted about travel to North Korea by this group, a senior administration official said, requesting anonymity to comment before any trip had been made public. The official said the department does not vet US citizens’ private travel to North Korea and urges US citizens contemplating travel there to review a travel warning on its website.
In a now-defunct US-North Korean agreement in which Washington had planned last year to give food aid to Pyongyang in exchange for nuclear concessions, Washington had said it was prepared to increase people-to-people exchanges with the North, including in the areas of culture, education and sports.
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. It’s a game that doesn’t require much equipment or upkeep.
The US 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-US 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.
North Korea even had its own Jordan wannabe: Ri Myong Hun, a 7-foot-9 star player who is said to have renamed himself “Michael” after his favorite player and moved to Canada for a few years in the 1990s in hopes of making it into the NBA.
Even today, Jordan remains well-loved here. At the Mansudae Art Studio, which produces the country’s top art, a portrait of Jordan spotted last week, complete with a replica of his signature and “NBA” painted in one corner, seemed an odd inclusion among the propaganda posters and celadon vases on display.
An informal poll of North Koreans revealed that “The Worm” isn’t quite as much a household name in Pyongyang.
But Kim Jong Un was a basketball-crazy adolescent when Rodman was with the Bulls, and when the Harlem Globetrotters kept up a frenetic travel schedule worldwide.
In a memoir about his decade serving as Kim Jong Il’s personal sushi chef, a man who goes by the pen name Kenji Fujimoto recalled that basketball was the young Kim Jong Un’s biggest passion, and that the Chicago Bulls were his favorite.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.