SEOUL -- Former NBA star Dennis Rodman arrived in North Korea on Thursday to help train the country’s national basketball team and prepare an exhibition game celebrating leader Kim Jong Un’s birthday.
Rodman’s trip, his third this year to the reclusive nation, comes just a week after North Korea announced the execution of Kim’s uncle by marriage, Jang Song Taek.
The dramatic purge of a man believed to have been a mentor to the young Kim and his second-in-command raised questions about the stability of the North Korean regime. The official Korean Central News Agency reported last week that Jang was executed after being found guilty of plotting a coup, calling him "despicable human scum."
Rodman, the most notable foreign dignitary to visit Pyongyang, told reporters at Beijing’s airport Thursday that he hopes to have "a good conversation" with Kim but said politics had nothing to do with his visit.
"I'm just going over there to do a basketball game and have some fun," he told Reuters news agency.
Rodman, who has called Kim a “friend for life,” visited North Korea in March and September, raising hopes that a jailed American might be freed as a gesture of friendship between the two.
Kenneth Bae, a Korean American evangelist and tour operator, was arrested in November last year and sentenced to 15 years in jail for "hostile acts against the state." Family members in Washington state say he is in poor health and was transferred from a prison camp to a hospital, where his mother visited him in October.
After his first trip, Rodman tweeted that he wanted Kim to "do me a solid" and release Bae. But when he returned in September, he said it was not his job to ask about the jailed American.
On Jan. 8, Kim’s birthday, Rodman is scheduled to attend the “Paddy Power Dennis Rodman Basketball Invitational” in Pyongyang. Publicity materials for the event indicate that Rodman plans to bring “NBA stars” to play against the North Koreans, though no names of any participating players have been announced.
“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,” Rodman told the Associated Press on Thursday.
He said he was “very proud” to call Kim his friend because “he hasn't done anything to put a damper, to say any negative things about my country.”