Former NBA All-Star Dennis Rodman held tryouts on Dec. 20, for a North Korean team to face a dozen NBA veterans in an exhibition game on leader Kim Jong Un’s birthday next month. The exhibition game is scheduled for Jan. 8 , 2014, in Pyongyang -- North Korea’s capital city --, though Rodman hasn’t convinced all the players on the American team that it’s safe to come according to the New York Daily News.
“You know, they’re still afraid to come here, but I’m just telling them, you know, don’t be afraid man, it’s all love, it’s all love here,” Rodman told The Associated Press after the tryouts at the Pyongyang Indoor Gymnasium. “I understand what’s going on with the political stuff, and I say, I don’t go into that venture, I’m just doing one thing for these kids here, and for this country, and for my country, and for the world pretty much.”
This is Rodman’s third trip to North Korea.
The trip comes at a time of political turmoil in the secretive nuclear-armed nation, ongoing tensions between North Korea and the United States and outcries over North Korea's human rights record.
Tensions in the region were ratcheted up as North Korea carried out a long-range rocket launch a year ago and an underground nuclear test, its third so far, in February. The U.N. sanctions that followed were met by a barrage of threatening rhetoric from Pyongyang.
Rodman was criticized for his first trip in part because it came during this period, in which North Korea was threatening missile strikes on the United States, South Korea and Japan.
The situation has calmed since. But in a sign of internal political upheaval, North Korea announced last week that the regime had executed Kim's uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who had been regarded as the country's second-most powerful figure. North Korea's official news agency accused him of trying to overthrow the state.
The United States has other points of contention with North Korea, including the detention of Korean-American Kenneth Bae.
Bae, arrested in North Korea in November 2012, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after he was found guilty of "hostile acts" and attempts to topple the government through religious activities.
U.S. officials have repeatedly called on North Korean officials to release Bae, widely reported to be a Christian missionary, on humanitarian grounds. His family has said he suffers from chronic health conditions that require doctors' care.
Earlier this year, Rodman made no secret about his desire to help Bae. He tweeted that he wanted Kim to "do him a solid" by freeing the American prisoner.
But after his second trip to see Kim in September, Rodman told reporters that it was "not my job to talk about Kenneth Bae."
Rodman, who arrived in Pyongyang on Dec. 19, said he expects to announce the roster soon. He also said he is planning another game in June.
Rodman, wearing a pink button-down shirt and puffing on a cigar, watched as a couple dozen local players took to the basketball court for the tryouts. After the session, he told the players that each of the 12 he chooses will get two new pairs of tennis shoes.
Rodman and Kim have struck up an unlikely friendship since he traveled to the secretive state for the first time in February with the Harlem Globetrotters for an HBO series produced by New York-based VICE televisionHe remains the highest-profile American to meet Kim since the leader inherited power from his father in 2011.
Rodman stressed that he hopes the game will be friendly, without political or nationalistic overtones.
He said the former NBA players will take on the North Koreans in the first half, but the teams will be mixed for the second half.
“It’s not about win or loss. It’s about one thing — unite two countries,” Rodman said.