Former NBA star Dennis Rodman, better known now for bizarre behavior than anything he ever did on the court, launched into an unintelligible rant against a CNN anchor on Tuesday during an interview from North Korea, where he is on his fourth visit in less than a year. His outburst comments about Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American tour guide from Lynnwood who has been imprisoned in North Korea for 13 months.
Rodman, 52, brought six fellow retired professional basketball players to the rogue country for a game against the North Korean national team Wednesday, the 31st birthday of dictator Kim Jong Un.
The trip has drawn reproving statements from the National Basketball Association and its retired players’ affiliate, as well as from human rights advocates and democratic governments concerned that the purported goodwill gesture sends the wrong message to a ruthless leader.
In an interview with anchor Chris Cuomo on CNN’s “New Day,” Rodman claimed his latest trip was “a great idea for the world.”
When Cuomo asked Rodman whether he would use his visit to raise the case of Bae, imprisoned on vague charges of “hostile acts against the state,” Rodman plunged into a combative exchange with the anchor in which he implied that Bae was at fault for his detention.
“Kenneth Bae did one thing…. If you understand what Kenneth Bae did. Do you understand what he did in this country?” Rodman asked Cuomo.
Asked to explain what he thought Bae had done to draw the ire of Pyongyang officialdom, Rodman turned on Cuomo, spewing expletives and defensive mutterings about not being a “shill.”
Rodman appeared to be casting the trip as a sacrifice of the American sportsmen’s holiday time with friends and family to help “open the door just a little bit for people to come here.”
Charles D. Smith, one of the former players accompanying Rodman, attempted to calm the angry and gesticulating mission leader, to little avail. Smith said in a separate interview that he viewed the trip as a cultural exchange “to put smiles on people’s faces.”
“We are here because it’s about doing great will around the world,” Smith said, calling Rodman a passionate advocate for sports diplomacy with “a great heart.”
Whether the spectators invited for the Wednesday face-off between the visiting Americans and the North Koreans will include any ordinary people was unclear. When Rodman brought the Harlem Globetrotters to North Korea last year, the performance was staged for what appeared to be the reclusive leadership and the capital’s elite.
It also remained to be seen whether the visitors will bring their best game to the Pyongyang arena. A victory for the Americans could present Kim with an embarrassing loss of face at an event in his honor and expose Rodman to criticism that he failed to properly train the North Koreans.
Kim’s behavior is as erratic as Rodman’s, and often with more dire consequences.
The grandson of communist North Korea’s founder, Kim last month defended the execution of his uncle and right-hand man in the leadership, Jang Song Taek, as the elimination of “despicable human scum.” He also reportedly ordered the November public executions by firing squad of dozens of denounced enemies of the state for crimes ranging from alleged treason to possession of South Korean videos. In August, Kim was reported to have ordered the deaths of a dozen entertainers, including ex-girlfriend Hyon Song Wol, for allegedly producing pornography.
But Rodman declared after his first mission of “basketball diplomacy” in February that he had made a “friend for life” in the corpulent dictator ruling over one of the world’s poorest and most isolated countries.
His visit to Pyongyang last month to coach North Korean hoopsters and his current foray have drawn criticism, including chastising remarks by Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and United Nations envoy who also paid a visit to North Korea last year.
Richardson said Rodman was “getting into politics in a wrong way” by intimating that Bae was responsible for his own plight.
The NBA’s Retired Players Association also stated Tuesday that it hadn’t sanctioned “in any way” the trip to North Korea.
“Under the right circumstances basketball can serve as a bridge to bring communities together, but these are not those circumstances,” the association said in a statement. “Standing alongside our partners at the NBA, we do not condone the basketball activities to be conducted in North Korea this week.”