By Maxim Duncan
BEIJING (Reuters) – Former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman left Beijing for North Korea on Monday with a team of retired basketball players to mark the birthday of “nice guy” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
This will be Rodman’s fourth trip to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, where he and his team of fellow former National Basketball Association stars will hold basketball games on Kim’s birthday, which is believed to fall on Wednesday, although it has never been officially confirmed.
On previous visits, Rodman spent time dining as a guest of Kim, with whom he says he has a genuine friendship, though he did not meet Kim on his third trip.
Rodman said he will not interfere in the country’s politics.
“People always say that North Korea is like a really communist country, that people are not allowed to go there,” Rodman told reporters at an airport in Beijing. “I just know the fact that, you know, to me he’s a nice guy, to me.”
“Whatever he does political-wise, that’s not my job. I’m just an athlete, an individual who wants to go over there and play something for the world. That’s it.”
Rodman’s latest visit follows the rare public purge of Kim’s powerful uncle Jang Song Thaek, who was executed in December.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye has described recent events in North Korea as a “reign of terror”. The purging of Jang, considered the second most powerful man in the North, indicated factionalism within the secretive government.
Wearing sunglasses, a sequin-encrusted cap and a pink scarf, Rodman was asked about his response to critics who said he should not play in the reclusive state.
“Are they going to shoot me? Are they going to shoot me? Come on, man,” he said.
(Writing by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Michael Perry and Robert Birsel)