PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — Former NBA star Dennis Rodman arrived in North Korea on Thursday to meet leader Kim Jong Un and put the finishing touches on plans to bring 12 ex-NBA players to Pyongyang for a Jan. 8 exhibition game marking the leader's birthday. Rodman said the game is on track despite the recent execution of Kim's uncle in a dramatic political purge.
Rodman's visit comes less than a week after North Korea announced the execution of Jang Song Thaek, an unprecedented fall from grace for one of the most powerful figures in the country. Jang's execution sparked speculation by foreign analysts over the future of the Kim regime.
But officials in Pyongyang say Jang's removal has not caused any instability. Rodman's visit — should it proceed uneventfully — could be a sign that Kim is firmly in charge.
Rodman told The Associated Press in a brief interview at his Pyongyang hotel that he was undaunted by the recent political events.
"I can't control what they do with their government, I can't control what they say or how they do things here," he said. "I'm just trying to come here as a sports figure and try to hope I can open the door for a lot of people in the country."
Rodman and Kim have struck up an unlikely friendship since the Hall of Famer traveled to the secretive state for the first time in February with the Harlem Globetrotters for an HBO series produced by New York-based VICE television.
He remains the highest-profile American to meet Kim since the leader inherited power from his father, Kim Jong Il, in 2011.
"I've come over to see my friend, and people always give me a little hard time about me saying that," said Rodman, who was given the red carpet treatment at the airport by Vice Sports Minister Son Kwang Ho and O Hun Ryong, secretary-general of the North Korean Basketball Association. "I'm very proud to say he's my friend, because he hasn't done anything to put a damper, to say any negative things about my country."
Rodman has not yet announced the roster for the game. He is also expected to train North Korean basketball players during his several-day stay in Pyongyang and to meet with Kim, though he did not give any details about what his plans are. He said, however, that if after the 12 former NBA players go home they say "some really, really nice things, some really cool things about this country," then he has done his job.
Known as much for his piercings, tattoos and bad behavior as he was for basketball, Rodman has mostly avoided politics in his dealings with the North. He's mainly focused on using basketball as a means of boosting understanding and communication and studiously avoided commenting on the North's human rights record or its continued detainment of an American, Kenneth Bae, for allegedly committing anti-state crimes.
"North Korea has given me the opportunity to bring these players and their families over here, so people can actually see, so these players can actually see, that this country is actually not as bad as people project it to be in the media," he said.
In Washington, the State Department distanced itself from Rodman, and reiterated U.S. concern about human rights in North Korea and its nuclear program.
"What we focus on is not an ex-NBA player from however many years ago who decides to take a trip to North Korea, it's on what the North Korean government is doing on its brutality, on its continued violation of international obligations. That's what we're focused on here, not what Dennis Rodman is or isn't doing," Harf said.
However, she said the department would be open to speaking to Rodman on his return.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.