Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rodman in N. Korea 'to see my friend'

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PYONGYANG, North Korea -- Former NBA star Dennis Rodman arrived in North Korea Thursday to meet leader Kim Jong Un and put the finishing touches on plans to bring 12 ex-NBA players to Pyongyang for a Jan. 8 exhibition game marking the leader's birthday. Rodman said the game is on track despite the recent execution of Kim's uncle in a dramatic political purge.

Rodman's visit comes less than a week after North Korea announced the execution of Jang Song Thaek, an unprecedented fall from grace for one of the most powerful figures in the country. Jang's execution sparked speculation by foreign analysts about the future of the Kim regime.

But officials in Pyongyang say Jang's removal has not caused any instability. Rodman's visit, should it proceed uneventfully, could be a sign that Kim is firmly in charge.

Rodman told The Associated Press in a brief interview at his Pyongyang hotel he was undaunted by the recent events.

"I can't control what they do with their government, I can't control what they say or how they do things here," he said. "I'm just trying to come here as a sports figure and try to hope I can open the door for a lot of people in the country."

Rodman and Kim have struck up an unlikely friendship since the Hall of Famer travelled to the secretive state for the first time in February with the Harlem Globetrotters for an HBO series produced by New York-based VICE television. He remains the highest-profile American to meet Kim since the leader inherited power from his father, Kim Jong Il, in 2011.

"I've come over to see my friend, and people always give me a little hard time about me saying that," said Rodman, who was given the red-carpet treatment at the airport by Sports Vice-Minister Son Kwang Ho and O Hun Ryong, secretary-general of the North Korean Basketball Association. "I'm very proud to say he's (Kim) my friend, because he hasn't done anything to put a damper, to say any negative things about my country."

Rodman has not announced the roster for the game. He is also expected to train North Korean basketball players during his several-day stay in Pyongyang and meet with Kim, though he did not give details about his plans.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 20, 2013 C6

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