PYONGYANG, North Korea -- Former NBA star Dennis Rodman brought his basketball skills and flamboyant style -- tattoos, nose studs and all -- to the country with possibly the world’s strictest dress code: North Korea.
Arriving in Pyongyang, the American athlete and showman known as "The Worm" became an unlikely ambassador for sports diplomacy at a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. Or maybe not so unlikely: Young leader Kim Jong Un is said to have been a fan of the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, when Rodman won three championships with the club.
Rodman is joining three members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team and a VICE correspondent for a news show on North Korea that will air on HBO later this year, VICE producers told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview before they landed.
"It’s my first time, I think it’s most of these guys’ first time here, so hopefully everything’s going to be OK , and hoping the kids have a good time for the game," Rodman told reporters after arriving in North Korea on Tuesday.
Rodman and VICE’s producers said the Americans hope to engage in a little "basketball diplomacy" by running a basketball camp for children and playing with North Korea’s top basketball stars.
The notoriously unpredictable and irrepressible Rodman might seem an odd fit for regimented North Korea, where men’s fashion rarely ventures beyond military khaki and where growing facial hair is forbidden.
Shown a photo of a snarling Rodman, piercings dangling from his lower lip and two massive tattoos emblazoned on his chest, one North Korean in Pyongyang recoiled and said: "He looks like a monster!"
But Rodman is also a Hall of Fame basketball player and one of the best defenders and rebounders to ever play the game. During a storied, often controversial career, he won five NBA championships -- a feat appreciated even in North Korea.
Rodman, now 51, was low-key and soft-spoken in cobalt blue sweatpants and a Polo Ralph Lauren cap. There was a bit of flash: white-rimmed sunglasses and studs in his nose and lower lip. But he told AP he was there to teach basketball and talk to people, not to stir up trouble.
Rodman’s trip is the second high-profile American visit this year to North Korea, a country that remains in a state of war with the U.S. It also comes two weeks after North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test in defiance of U.N. bans against atomic and missile activity.
Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, made a surprise four-day trip in January to Pyongyang, where he met with officials and toured computer labs, just weeks after North Korea launched a satellite into space on the back of a long-range rocket.
Washington, Tokyo, Seoul and others consider both the rocket launch and the nuclear test provocative acts that threaten regional security.
North Korea characterizes the satellite launch as a peaceful bid to explore space, but says the nuclear test was meant as a deliberate warning to Washington. Pyongyang says it needs to build nuclear weapons to defend itself against the U.S., and is believed to be trying to build an atomic bomb small enough to mount on a missile capable of reaching the mainland U.S.
VICE, known for its sometimes irreverent journalism, has made two previous visits to North Korea, coming out with the "VICE Guide to North Korea." The HBO series, which will air weekly starting April 5, features documentary-style news reports from around the world.
The Americans also will visit North Korea’s national monuments, the SEK animation studio and a new skate park in Pyongyang.
The U.S. State Department hasn’t been contacted about travel to North Korea by this group, a senior administration official said, requesting anonymity to comment before any trip had been made public. The official said the department does not vet U.S. citizens’ private travel to North Korea and urges U.S. citizens contemplating travel there to review a travel warning on its website.
In a now-defunct U.S.-North Korean agreement in which Washington had planned last year to give food aid to Pyongyang in exchange for nuclear concessions, Washington had said it was prepared
to increase people-to-people exchanges with the North, including in the areas of culture, education and sports.