BEIJING - North Korea's young dictator Kim Jong Un had his uncle executed for treason and attacked by state media last week as a womanizing, drug-taking gambler who squandered millions of dollars. This week, Kim welcomes back his friend Dennis Rodman, the basketball legend who has admitted to similar tendencies - aside from the treason.
The U.S. State Department advises Americans not to travel to North Korea. A U.S. tourist and Korean War veteran, Merrill Newman, was detained there last month and deported Dec. 7, and another detained U.S. citizen, missionary Kenneth Bae, is serving a 15-year sentence in a North Korean labor camp.
Rodman left for Pyongyang from Beijing airport Thursday afternoon, and will stay in North Korea until Monday. He said he will return to North Korea next month with 12 American basketball players, whose names he will reveal on this trip, to play an exhibition game on Jan. 8, Kim Jong Un's birthday.
"I hope this game brings a lot of countries together. Sports is so important to people around the world," Rodman said at the Beijing airport of his self-appointed "basketball diplomacy" mission. "I hope this is going to engage American people, especially with Obama, he has to try to talk to" Kim, Rodman said.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Rodman is not a representative of the U.S. government, which appears to have no immediate plans to open dialog with Kim. "I know he's waiting for me to come back, so hopeful to have a good conversation about some things that's gonna help the world," said Rodman.
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," he said. "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 would raise the issue of Bae's detention. "That's a touchy subject right there," he said.
The former Chicago Bulls star and self-styled "Bad Boy," who markets a vodka brand by that name, Rodman has become a fast if unlikely friend with Bulls fan Kim Jong Un, age about 30, the third generation of North Korea's ruling Kim dynasty.
A highly secretive authoritarian state, North Korea regularly threatens military action against South Korea and its main ally, the USA, and carries out nuclear tests in defiance of the international community. Despite that pedigree, 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.
"This is a sporting, cultural and historical first. Sport can rise above the news agenda and current affairs," Scott said, like late South African president Nelson Mandela's use of the 1995 rugby World Cup to promote national unity, and soccer played between British and German troops during World War I.
"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.
The state "is an entity that permeates everything there," cautioned Simon Cockerell, a veteran traveler to North Korea and general manager of Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based travel agency. "But sport offers a universal language to engage with North Korean people," he said. "North Korea and the United States share very little, but they do share a love of basketball."
In 2012, Koryo Tours took a group of American basketball coaches, Coaches Team International, to North Korea, and Koreans were "overjoyed," said Cockerell. The firm has already sold out its tour to accompany the Rodman team in January. "People want to see something truly different, and history in the making," he said.
Kim's actions may appear bizarre, but his regime sees no contradiction in showing "dual signs" to the outside world, said Ahn Yin-hay, an international studies professor at Korea University in Seoul. "He has one hand for the terror of execution, and one to wave at Westerners, as a gesture of reconciliation," she said.
Just don't expect Korean basketball to deliver the diplomatic breakthrough of ping-pong diplomacy between China and the USA, warned Aidan Foster Carter, a North Korea expert at Leeds University in the United Kingdom.
"Kim Jong Un just does as he pleases. One of the few facts known about him is his liking of basketball," he said. "He seems oblivious to the impact on his image."
Kim's purge of his uncle Jang is "a sign of instability," said Carter. "It seems incredibly high-risk to do it so publicly. I think he is headstrong rather than strong."
Kim presided over ceremonies in Pyongyang on Tuesday marking the second anniversary of the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. At a mass rally of top party and army brass, attendees applauded frantically, according to images shown on state TV. One of the criticisms leveled against Jang Song Thaek was "half-heartedly clapping" for Kim Jong Un.
Some of Uncle Jang's colleagues were present Tuesday, suggesting that Kim's purge has its limits, said Korea University's Ahn. "He would rather show his unitary system is stable. He will also show there is no 'second man' in North Korea, and all the people are faithful to him," she said.