— Former American basketball star Dennis Rodman arrived in Pyongyang on Monday with a team of retired players to play an exhibition game in honor of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's birthday.
Before leaving Beijing Monday, Rodman told reporters at the airport that he does not intend to raise North Korea's human rights record during his visit, saying Mr. Kim is a "good guy" and a "friend."
Rodman walked through Beijing's airport at around 10:00 am local time, surrounded by a crowd of media and security and followed by several players, including Charles Smith.
Rodman held a bottle of Carlsberg beer, which be propped on top of an x-ray machine as he passed his bag through.
Dennis Rodman sings Happy Birthday to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, seated above in the stands, before an exhibition basketball game in Pyongyang, Jan. 8, 2014.
Dennis Rodman tips his hat as U.S. and North Korean basketball players applaud at the end of an exhibition basketball game in Pyongyang, Jan. 8, 2014.
Dennis Rodman cheers after a fellow basketball player makes a jump shot during a practice session with North Korean players in Pyongyang, Jan. 7, 2014.
Dennis Rodman meets with former North Korean basketball player Ri Myung Hun at a practice session with U.S. and North Korean players in Pyongyang, Jan. 7, 2014.
Dennis Rodman huddles with North Korean basketball players and fellow former NBA stars at a practice session in Pyongyang, Jan. 7, 2014.
A North Korean basketball player returns the scarf that Dennis Rodman was wearing and took off during a practice with North Korean and U.S. basketball players in Pyongyang, Jan. 7, 2014.
Dennis Rodman stands up to leave after he and fellow U.S. basketball players completed a television interview at a Pyongyang hotel, Jan. 7, 2014.
Rodman has already visited Pyongyang three times, and during the first two trips spent time dining as a guest of Kim, with whom he says he has a genuine friendship. Rodman made his last trip late last month when he trained North Korean players. He did not meet Kim on that trip.
“People always say that North Korea is like a really communist country, that people are not allowed to go there. I just know the fact that, you know, to me he's a nice guy, to me. Nice guy, you know. Whatever he does political-wise, that's not my job,” Rodman said, referring to Kim.
In March 2013, North Korea's state media broadcast video of Kim and Rodman in Pyongyang.
The video showed basketball fan Kim and his wife, Ri Sol-ju, watching a game with Rodman on February 28, 2013.
Rodman's visit in late December 2013 followed the rare public purge of Kim's powerful uncle Jang Song Thaek, who was executed earlier that month.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye described recent events as indicative of a “reign of terror.” The purging of Jang, considered the second most powerful man in the North, indicated factionalism within the secretive government.
At a news conference on Monday in Seoul, Park called on Pyongyang to resume family reunions as a way to improve relations, saying it was regrettable that a planned family reunion last year was cancelled by the North with just four days notice. She said elderly members of separated families should be allowed to reunite in time for the Lunar New year on January 31, so that "wounds in their hearts can be healed."
Leonid Petrov, a Korea expert at the Australian National University said he doubts any such New Year's reunion can be arranged given the ideological divide between the two Koreas. Petrov says Pyongyang which derives its legitimacy from its possession of nuclear weapons should be engaged with to build trust, and that its nuclear ambitions will have to be dealt with in the future.
William Sharp a professor of East Asia studies at Hawaii-Pacific University says Rodman is one of the few Americans Kim has had contact with since assuming power two years ago. For his part, Rodman said his visit was strictly non-political.
“On the subject of the game, I hope it will open doors a little bit around the world, around the world, around the world. That's what I hope. But of course, everything else, that's not by job. I'm not a president, I'm not a politician, I'm not an ambassador. I'm just an athlete, an individual who wants to go over there and play something for the world. That's it,” said Rodman.
Asked what response he had to critics who say he should not play in the reclusive state, Rodman laughed.
“Are they going to shoot me? Are they going to shoot me? Come on, man,” he said.
Rodman's first visit in February 2013 came shortly after North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in defiance of U.N. resolutions.
Now 52 years old, Rodman won five NBA championships in his prime, achieving a mix of fame and notoriety for his on and off-court antics.
Some information in this report was contributed by Reuters, and by VOA's Victor Beattie