BEIJING — Dennis Rodman and six other former NBA players arrived Monday in Pyongyang, where they’re set to face off against a North Korean basketball team on Wednesday — dictator Kim Jong Un’s birthday.
Rodman recruited Charles D. Smith, Kenny Anderson, Cliff Robinson, Vin Baker, Craig Hodges and Doug Christie to accompany him to the Hermit Kingdom for the game, his fourth “basketball diplomacy” mission to the country.
Rodman has pushed ahead with the game despite sharp criticism for cozying up to the repressive regime; Irish bookmaker Paddy Power withdrew its name as the sponsor of the event — originally dubbed the "Big Bang in Pyongyang: Hoops, Not Nukes" — after news broke in December that Kim had purged his uncle, Jang Song Taek, and had him executed.
Rodman, 52, visited Pyongyang last month to help train the North Korean squad shortly after the execution of Jang, the country’s de facto second in command. Jang, 67, was accused of plotting to overthrow Kim’s regime. Though Rodman has declared Kim a “friend for life,” Rodman has said he did not meet the North Korean leader on his December trip to Pyongyang.
With the game just 48 hours away, it was unclear Monday what shape the match would take. At least five questions remained open:
Who will win?
An American victory would seem highly unlikely, since a North Korean defeat would be a serious loss of face for the home squad. (Rodman, as guest coach, also might have to explain why he didn’t train the players well enough.)
In February 2013, Rodman traveled to North Korea with several members of the Harlem Globetrotters for an exhibition game. In that match — filmed by New York-based Vice television for an HBO series — the Americans did not face off directly against the North Koreans; instead, teams were picked “playground-style,” with two Americans on each side playing alongside North Koreans. Miraculously, the game ended in a 110-110 tie. Is a similar draw in the offing this time?
Who will be in the stands, and what does that mean?
The portly young North Korean leader attended the Harlem Globetrotters’ match last year and sat next to Rodman in prime seats. Also spectating? Jang, Kim’s now-deceased uncle. Regime-watchers may be able to take away some clues about whose stars are rising in the North Korean leadership based on who attends with Kim on Wednesday.
Will the Americans party with Kim afterward?
Following the Globetrotters game, Kim surprised the U.S. athletes by hosting a private dinner for them — making it Kim’s most intimate contact with Americans to date.
According to the “Vice” report on the soiree, the alcohol-soaked banquet featured an all-girl band in white outfits playing electric violins and guitars; at one point, Rodman sang “My Way” with the group while the delegation’s interpreter played the saxophone. Time will tell whether Kim will gin up another evening of revelry with Americans, but it is his 31st birthday, after all.
Will there be a special birthday gift for Kim?
Perhaps Rodman will toast Kim with an “Orange Bomber” cocktail — that’s 2 parts orange liqueur, 3 parts Sprite and 2 parts Rodman Bad Ass Vodka. (That’s right, Rodman recently launched his own vodka brand.) But wrapping up a few bottles for Kim’s 31st birthday may not seem like a grand enough gesture — Rodman reportedly brought the North Korean leader two cases of the booze on his September visit, prior to putting the tipple on sale stateside.
Rodman is hoping Kim isn’t the only world leader who will a have sip of his firewater.
"Everyone knows [President] Obama drinks beer," Rodman told the Associated Press recently. "But you know what? I'm pretty sure he does have a cocktail here or there. I'd love to see him with a 'Bad Ass Vodka' shot in his hand, toasting to Kim Jong and me. That would be awesome."
Do these trips have any significance for U.S.-North Korea relations? Or are they just a self-serving tool for the Dennis Rodman publicity machine?
The U.S. government has made it clear Rodman is not an official ambassador, and human rights groups have taken him to task for not speaking out forcefully against the regime’s dismal record.
The family of Kenneth Bae, an American detained in North Korea for more than a year, has issued public pleas to Rodman in recent weeks, urging him to use his face time with Kim to secure Bae’s release.
Bae, a tour guide and evangelist, was arrested in the North Korean city of Rason in November 2012. He was charged with "hostile acts against the state" and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
Bae’s sister, Terri Chung, went on CNN last month and appealed directly to Rodman to take up the matter with Kim.
“Mr. Rodman, if you’re watching, please do think about this American citizen — a father, a husband, a son, and a brother — who has been imprisoned for 13 months…. Do everything you can to bring him home.”
So far, though, it seems Rodman has been unable or unwilling to get into such specifics with Kim. Time will tell if that changes on this trip.
"It's about trying to connect two countries together in the world, to let people know that: Do you know what? Not every country in the world is that bad, especially North Korea," Rodman told the Associated Press outside his Beijing hotel on Monday before his flight to North Korea.
"People say so many negative things about North Korea. And I want people in the world to see it's not that bad."