BEIJING – Dennis Rodman helped Kim Jong Un mark his 31st birthday Wednesday with sport and song, serenading the North Korean dictator with a warbly rendition of “Happy Birthday” in a Pyongyang gymnasium and then leading fellow ex-NBA players in a game against a local squad.
Spectators were not allowed to bring cameras into the modestly appointed arena, but video posted later online showed Rodman in sunglasses leading the crowd — many of them in sport coats and dress shirts — in a singing tribute to “The Marshal.” Then the Americans, in blue and white uniforms, faced off against the North Koreans, or the “Torch Team,” in red.
Simon Cockerell, a tour guide with Beijing-based Koryo tours who is traveling with Rodman’s group, described the event as a “bizarre and unusual occasion.”
In a video dispatch from Pyongyang posted to Koryo’s Facebook page, he said the teams played two 10-minute halves, with the North Koreans prevailing at the final buzzer (by a score of 47-39, according to Associated Press). Then they played another 10 minutes of mixed teams, a matchup featuring “showboating and alley-oops.”
Rodman’s so-called basketball diplomacy has drawn sharp criticism from a number of Americans, including several members of Congress as well as the family of Kenneth Bae, a tour guide and U.S. citizen who has been held captive in the country for more than a year.
On Tuesday, tensions were high as Rodman sparred with a CNN anchor over the trip, and another former player with his delegation, Charles D. Smith, voiced some misgivings about his participation in an interview with Associated Press.
But Rodman told reporters on the scene Wednesday that the game was “a historic day for everyone in the world” and showed that “we can coexist with each other if we take a deep breath.”
Early video clips from the arena did not show Kim, but Cockerell said the North Korean leader attended the game with his wife and that the crowd, in typical fashion, greeted him with thunderous applause and shouts of “May you live 10,000 years!”
The trip was Rodman’s fourth to North Korea and comes about a month after the secretive regime announced that Jang Song Taek, Kim’s uncle and de facto second-in-command, had been purged and executed for plotting against Kim.
There was no immediate word on whether Jang’s wife — Kim’s aunt and the sister of his late father, Kim Jong Il — attended Wednesday’s game in Pyongyang. Speculation about her well-being has swirled since Jang’s demise.