North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sat down Thursday for a rare meeting with an American – the pierced, provocative former basketball star Dennis Rodman, according to media reports.
Rodman reportedly chatted with Kim as they sat side by side at a basketball game, the latest turn in his trip to Pyongyang, according to Chinese state media and a media company filming the trip. Afterward, he told Kim he had “a friend for life” in a speech before a massive crowd of North Koreans, the Vice media company said in a statement.
Vice, which is documenting the trip for an upcoming HBO special, has billed the tour as an unusual bid at “basketball diplomacy,” an attempt to find common ground on the basketball court. Three members of the Harlem Globetrotters also went on the weeklong trip, which was scheduled to include visits to North Korean monuments and running a basketball camp for North Korean children. Rodman and the Globetrotters arrived in North Korea this week.
The Harlem Globetrotters “are proud to continue our storied heritage of entertaining families and breaking down social barriers worldwide,” Harlem Globetrotters chief executive Kurt Schneider said in a statement. “Our aim is to entertain and inspire children everywhere. Every child deserves that opportunity.”
Shooting hoops is a shared obsession of North Korea and the U.S., which has no diplomatic ties with the isolated and repressive country. North Korea this month defiantly conducted its third nuclear test, spurring tighter sanctions and stern condemnation from world powers.
Touring North Korea is a touchy topic among Westerners, who debate whether visiting the country helps open it to outside influence or undercuts U.S. pressure and legitimizes the North Korean government.
Rodman reacted to criticism on Twitter, saying, “I’m not a politician. Kim Jung Un & North Korean people are basketball fans. I love everyone. Period. End of story.”
By welcoming Rodman, North Korea “clearly wants to use this as PR for themselves, to show their own people that a great American sports hero would pay homage to their great leader,” said Charles K. Armstrong, director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University.
“Sending a message to the U.S. is also part of it – that your harsh words and sanctions don’t mean anything. On the other hand,” he added, “it also sends the message that we can talk with Americans” – a possible sign that future exchanges could be possible, Armstrong said.
After the basketball game, which was played by mixed teams of the Globetrotters and North Korean athletes, the Vice film crew and the rest of the delegation met with Kim for dinner, according to the media company. Vice producer Jason Mojica tweeted from Pyongyang that the North Korean leader got the film crew “wasted … no really, that happened.”
As Rodman and the Globetrotters began their tour, Pyongyang continued to rail against the U.S., with state media proclaiming Tuesday that North Korean forces “are intensifying their combat training with bitter hatred for the U.S. imperialists and their followers.”