BEIJING - Former basketball star Dennis Rodman headed to Pyongyang Monday with a group of former NBA players, saying he will not raise concerns about repression in North Korea because leader Kim Jong-Un is his friend and he loves him.
The eccentric ex-Chicago Bulls player is leading a team including retired NBA All-Stars Kenny Anderson, Cliff Robinson and Vin Baker for an exhibition game against North Korea, which is being held Wednesday to mark Kim's birthday. Rodman told reporters at Beijing airport that he hoped the match could "open the doors" to "talk about certain things".
"But I am not going to sit there and go 'Hey guy, you are doing the wrong thing. That is not the right way to do it. He is my friend first... and I love him," Rodman said, sprinkling his comments with expletives.
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as it is officially known, is a one-party Communist state which has been ruled by the Kim dynasty since its founding.
The country has in the past been hit by famine, sometimes threatens war against South Korea and the US, and is regularly accused of human rights abuses.
The heavily tattooed Rodman has developed an unlikely relationship with the North Korean leader since making his first trip there in February, when he declared Kim a "friend for life".
Former NBA players Doug Christie, Craig Hodges and Charles D Smith are also in Rodman's side for the exhibition game.
Five players were travelling with Rodman on his flight to Pyongyang Monday, while another will arrive on Tuesday, one of the trip's organisers told AFP, without giving details.
The young Kim, who was educated in Switzerland, is reported to be a keen basketball fan and especially of the Chicago Bulls, for whom Rodman played a key role in winning three NBA titles alongside Michael Jordan in the 1990s.
Rodman, who is making his fourth visit to Pyongyang, made his last trip shortly before Christmas, when he trained the North Korean players.
Earlier last year, he visited the North with the Harlem Globetrotters, as part of what he describes as "basketball diplomacy".
Last month Kim had his uncle and former mentor Jang Song-Thaek executed. "I am not worried about his uncle," Rodman said in Beijing in response to questions about the move.
Rodman routinely distances himself from political events in the country. The player known as "The Worm" is one of the few Westerners to have met Kim, who took over following the death of his father Kim Jong-Il.