Flamboyant Dennis in traditional local costume
Photo © 2013 AFP/AAP/KCNA
Flamboyant retired NBA star Dennis Rodman defended his trip to North Korea, saying leader Kim Jong-Un does not seek war but does want one thing -- a call from US President Barack Obama.
Rodman, a colourful Hall of Famer who won NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls and at one time dated Madonna, is now the most high-profile American to have met Kim, with whom he watched a basketball game last week in Pyongyang.
The visit by Rodman and members of the Harlem Globetrotters came at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and North Korea, following Pyongyang's nuclear test last month, which sparked global condemnation.
When asked about Kim's human rights record, Rodman admitted he himself was "not a diplomat" and told ABC News: "I'm not apologising for him. (...) I don't condone what he does." But he reiterated that Kim was now a "friend."
Rodman said that Kim, who took power in the isolated state after his father Kim Jong-Il died in December 2011, told him: "'I don't want to do war. I don't want to do war.' He said that to me."
"He wants Obama to do one thing -- call him," Rodman said on ABC's "This Week" news program.
The former power forward nicknamed "The Worm," who won NBA championships with Michael Jordan's Bulls and the Detroit Pistons, described Kim as "very humble" but also "very strong," adding: "He loves power. He loves control."
But Rodman -- sporting dark glasses, his signature nose and lip rings, and a jacket emblazoned with US money -- insisted so-called 'basketball diplomacy' could be a way to bridge the divide between Washington and Pyongyang.
"He loves basketball. And I said Obama loves basketball. Let's start there, all right. Start there," Rodman said.
Pictures of Thursday's game between a North Korean side and a US team featuring members of the Globetrotters -- which ended in a diplomatic 110-110 tie -- showed Rodman clapping and laughing next to a clearly delighted Kim.
The pair were also photographed joking together at a post-game reception, where Rodman, sporting a pink neck scarf and piercings in his nose and lip, appeared to be enjoying a martini.
The Swiss-educated Kim Jong-Un, believed to be in his late 20s, is reported to be a huge fan of basketball and the Bulls. Rodman repeatedly said during the interview with ABC that Kim was 28-years-old.
When asked about North Korea's notorious prison camps, Rodman retorted: "We do the same thing here."
Rodman's access to Kim raised more than a few eyebrows among Pyongyang watchers. It came as the UN Security Council continues to debate how to punish North Korea for carrying out the February 12 nuclear test.
A recent delegation to North Korea that included Google chairman Eric Schmidt and Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, never got to see the young leader.
North Korea and the United States, an ally of South Korea, have never had diplomatic relations.
"What I did was history," Rodman said. "I'm going to go back and do one thing, find out more what's really going on."