BEIJING (USA TODAY) -- North Korea's young dictator Kim Jong Un had his uncleexecuted for treason and attacked by state media last week as awomanizing, drug-taking gambler who squandered millions of dollars. Thisweek, Kim welcomes back his friend Dennis Rodman, the basketball legendwho has admitted to similar tendencies - aside from the treason.
TheU.S. State Department advises Americans not to travel to North Korea. AU.S. tourist and Korean War veteran, Merrill Newman, was detained therelast month and deported December 7, and another detained U.S. citizen,missionary Kenneth Bae, is serving a 15-year sentence in a North Koreanlabor camp.
Rodman left for Pyongyang from Beijing airportThursday afternoon, and stays there until Monday. He said he will returnto North Korea next month with 12 American basketball players, whosenames he will reveal on this trip, to play an exhibition game on 8January, Kim Jong Un's birthday.
"Ihope this game brings a lot of countries together. Sports is soimportant to people around the world," Rodman said at the airport of hisself-appointed 'basketball diplomacy' mission. "I hope this is going toengage American people, especially with Obama, he has to try to talkto" Kim.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harfstressed Tuesday that Rodman is not a representative of the U.S.government, which appears to have no immediate plans to open dialog withKim. "I know he's waiting for me to come back, so hopeful to have agood conversation about some things that's gonna help the world," saidRodman.
The U.S. travel warning does not faze the former NBA star."I'm not worried, if something happens, it's out of my control," hesaid. "I'm just trying to help the situation, because we're friends,that's the reason why I'm going back." It seemed unlikely Rodman wouldraise the issue of Bae's detention. "That's a touchy subject rightthere," he said.
The former Chicago Bulls star and self-styled"Bad Boy," who markets a vodka brand by that name, Rodman has become afast if unlikely friend with Bulls fan Kim Jong Un, age about 30, thethird generation of North Korea's ruling Kim dynasty.
A highlysecretive authoritarian state, North Korea regularly threatens militaryaction against South Korea and its main ally, the USA, and carries outnuclear tests in defiance of the international community. Despite thatpedigree, Rory Scott, spokesman for Irish bookmaker Paddy Power, which is sponsoring the January game and Rodman's trip this week, sounds bullish about the January plans.
"Thisis a sporting, cultural and historical first. Sport can rise above thenews agenda and current affairs," he said, like late South AfricanPresident Nelson Mandela's use of the 1995 rugby world cup to promotenational unity, and soccer played between British and German troopsduring the First World War.
"This is nothing to do with high-level politics. It's just sport," said Scott, on the eve of his first visit to North Korea.
Thestate "is an entity that permeates everything there," cautioned SimonCockerell, a veteran traveler to North Korea and general manager ofKoryo Tours, a Beijing-based travel agency. "But sport offers auniversal language to engage with North Korean people," he said. "NorthKorea and the United States share very little, but they do share a loveof basketball."
In 2012, Koryo Tours took a group ofAmerican basketball coaches, Coaches Team International, to North Korea,and Koreans were "overjoyed," said Cockerell. The firm has already soldout its tour to accompany the Rodman team in January. "People want tosee something truly different, and history in the making," he said.
KimJong Un's actions may appear bizarre, but his regime sees nocontradiction in showing "dual signs" to the outside world, said AhnYin-hay, an international studies professor at Korea University inSeoul. "He has one hand for the terror of execution, and one to wave atWesterners, as a gesture of reconciliation," she said.
Just don'texpect Korean basketball to deliver the diplomatic breakthrough ofping-pong diplomacy between China and the USA, warned Aidan FosterCarter, a North Korea expert at Leeds University in the U.K.
"KimJong Un just does as he pleases. One of the few facts known about him ishis liking of basketball," he said. "He seems oblivious to the impacton his image."
Kim's purge of his uncle Jang is "a sign ofinstability," said Carter. "It seems incredibly high-risk to do it sopublicly. I think he is headstrong rather than strong," he said.
Kimpresided over ceremonies in Pyongyang on Tuesday marking the secondanniversary of the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. At a mass rally oftop party and army brass, attendees applauded frantically, according toimages shown on state TV. One of the criticisms leveled against JangSong Thaek was "half-heartedly clapping" for Kim Jong Un.
Some ofUncle Jang's colleagues were present Tuesday, suggesting that Kim'spurge has its limits, said Korea University's Ahn. "He would rather showhis unitary system is stable. He will also show there is no 'secondman' in North Korea, and all the people are faithful to him," she said.
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