PYONGYANG, North Korea — Dennis Rodman sang “Happy Birthday” to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before leading a squad of former NBA stars in a friendly game yesterday as part of his “basketball diplomacy” that has been criticized in the United States as naive and laughable.
Rodman dedicated the game to his “best friend” Kim, who along with his wife and other senior officials and their wives watched from a special seating area. The capacity crowd of about 14,000 at the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium clapped loudly as Rodman sang a verse from the birthday song.
Rodman said he was honored to be able to play the game in the North Korean capital and called the event “historic.” Some members of the U.S. Congress, the NBA and human rights groups, however, say he has become a public relations tool for North Korea’s government.
The government’s poor human rights record and its threats to use nuclear weapons against rival South Korea and the United States have kept it a pariah state. Kim shocked the world in December by having his uncle, once considered his mentor, executed after being accused of a litany of crimes including corruption, womanizing, drug abuse and attempting to seize power.
Rodman, 52, has refused to address those concerns while continuing to forge a relationship with Kim, whose age has never been officially disclosed. The government did not say how old he turned yesterday but he is believed to be in his early 30s.
At the start of the game, Rodman sang “Happy Birthday” to Kim, who was seated above in the stands at the stadium, and then bowed deeply as North Korean players clapped.
To keep it friendly, the Americans played against the North Koreans in the first half, but split up and merged teams for the second half.