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Rodman sings Happy Birthday to North Korea's Kim Jong-un

By -BBC | January 9th 2014 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300

Dennis Rodman sings "Happy Birthday" to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before an exhibition basketball game in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Wednesday, January 8. In his latest round of "basketball diplomacy," Rodman made his fourth visit to North Korea, one of the world's most totalitarian states, to participate in a basketball game between North Korea and a team of former NBA players.

US basketball star Dennis Rodman has sung Happy Birthday to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in front of a crowd of thousands in the capital.

Rodman said Mr Kim, who was in the audience with his wife and other senior officials, was his "best friend".

The former NBA star is on his fourth North Korean visit to mark Mr Kim's birthday with a basketball match.

He has angrily defended his visit after criticism from rights groups. The US said he does not represent the country.

The crowd of about 14,000 at the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium clapped and waved as Rodman sang Happy Birthday on Wednesday, the Associated Press news agency says.

Rodman is with a team of former National Basketball Association (NBA) players who played an exhibition match. He said the match was to celebrate Kim Jong-un's birthday, although the leader's official birthday and age have not been confirmed.

The celebration comes weeks after the execution of Mr Kim's uncle, Chang Song-thaek, once seen as a major power in North Korea. His rapid and brutal purge has sparked concern over stability inside the country.

Meanwhile, state news agency KCNA has announced that elections for North Korea's rubber-stamp parliament will be held on 9 March - an event which could provide a hint of who the key players are in the wake of Mr Chang's execution.

'Take the abuse'

Kenneth Bay has been in a North Korean prison since last November. Photo: CNN

Dennis Rodman has said that he was on a "basketball diplomacy" mission in North Korea. He remains the highest-profile American to have met the young Mr Kim.

Rodman had been asked several times in the past whether he could use his relationship with Mr Kim to discuss Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American sentenced to 15 years' hard labour in May 2013.

North Korea said that Mr Bae - described as both a tour operator and Christian missionary - had used his tourism business to plot sedition.

Asked again in a CNN interview on Tuesday, Rodman appeared to lose his cool, saying: "If you understand what Kenneth Bae did... Do you understand what he did in this country? ... I would love to speak on this."

His visit was about opening "the door a little bit", he said, even though the team would have "to go back to America and take the abuse".

A White House spokesman declined to comment on Rodman's remarks, but reiterated a call for North Korea to release Mr Bae - who is suffering from ill health - on humanitarian grounds.

Mr Bae's sister described Rodman's comments as appalling.

"He clearly doesn't know anything about Kenneth, about his case," Terri Chung told CNN. "This isn't some game. This is about a person's life."

Another player, former NBA star Charles D Smith, meanwhile, told the Associated Press news agency that he felt "remorse" for participating in the trip amid the backlash in the US.

"I feel a lot of remorse for the guys because we are doing something positive, but it's a lot bigger than us. We are not naive, we understand why things are being portrayed the way they are."

-BBC


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