Retired U.S. basketball star Dennis Rodman led North Koreans in singing "Happy Birthday" to the country's leader, Kim Jong Un, before a planned basketball game Wednesday in Pyongyang.
Rodman and other National Basketball Association players are visiting the isolated and impoverished country as part of a so-called "basketball diplomacy" trip that has been widely criticized in the U.S.
Koryo Tours head Simon Cockerell, who was at the game with his tour group, told VOA via Skype that a crowd of around 14,000 at a Pyongyang auditorium clapped loudly as the eccentric Rodman sang to Mr. Kim, the head of a government accused of some of the world's worst rights abuses.
"He did lead the crowd in singing happy birthday and it seemed unplanned. Because if it had been planned, everyone would have been prepared for it. It was a bit of a surprise and people did join in eventually when it became clear he did intend to lead a sing-a-long. I've been in a few happy birthday sing-a-longs in this country, but nothing on that scale. So it was a surprise to everyone there I believe."
Rodman has defended his trip as an effort to "open the door" to North Korea. The former NBA All-Star has said it is not his job to bring up politics with the North Korean leader, who he has referred to as a "good guy" and a "friend for life."
State Department and White House officials have stressed that Rodman's trip is unhelpful and not sanctioned by the U.S.