Former US basketball star Dennis Rodman sang “Happy birthday to you!” to North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in Pyongyang Wednesday, before joining a game with fellow players to mark the event.
In a video circulating online, the eccentric former NBA player can be seen walking onto an indoor basketball court in the North Korean capital to sing the birthday tribute to the young leader in front of an audience of thousands.
Kim, who is believed to have turned 31 this week, watched the match with his wife Ri Sol-Ju, and other officials.
Kim welcomed the team’s visit to North Korea “and said that the game served as a good occasion in promoting the understanding between the peoples of the two countries”, the official Korean Central News Agency said.
Rodman, wearing a basketball jersey and dark sunglasses, gestured to the crowd in the packed stadium as he sang, while a team of blue-clad retired NBA team-mates and North Korean players clapped along.
The heavily tattooed former star arrived in Pyongyang on Monday for his fourth trip to the North in 12 months, together with an assembled team of other former NBA players including Doug Christie, Craig Hodges and Charles Smith, for the exhibition game.
Rodman has been widely criticised for failing to raise human rights issues or the plight of jailed American Kenneth Bae during his visits to the North and to the leader whom he calls his friend for life.
“Under the right circumstances basketball can serve as a bridge to bring communities together, but these are not those circumstances,” Otis Birdsong, a four-time NBA All-Star and chairman of the National Basketball Retired Players Association, said Tuesday.
The US government, which has no diplomatic ties with North Korea, has also sought to distance itself from Rodman’s approach.
Rodman has rebutted the criticism, saying he simply came to celebrate his friend’s birthday, according to China’s state news agency Xinhua.
“He also said he did feel the love and enthusiasm the DPRK (North Korean) people have for their leader,” Xinhua reported from Pyongyang.
Kim just last month oversaw the execution of his powerful uncle and political mentor Jang Song-Thaek on charges of treason and corruption.
His one-party state faces severe international criticism and sanctions for its rights record, nuclear and missile programmes and threats of war.
Xinhua said Rodman himself played in the first half of the game before changing out of his basketball gear and joining Kim.
They chatted and smoked together while enjoying the game, it reported.
North Korean team Hwaebul beat the ex-NBA stars 47:39 in the first half of the friendly while the second half was played as mixed teams from both countries, with the White team beating the Green team 63:54.
Kim met the players from the two teams after the match and wished the Americans a pleasant stay in North Korea, KCNA said.
The Swiss-educated Kim is reported to be a keen fan of basketball and especially of Rodman’s former team the Chicago Bulls.
Rodman, interviewed at Beijing airport Monday en route to Pyongyang said he would not raise concerns about repression because Kim is his friend and he loves him.
On Tuesday the former star angrily refused to answer questions about Bae, who is jailed in the North.
Asked by CNN if he would make the case for the release of the American missionary, Rodman said: “I don’t give a rat’s ass what the hell you think.”
He implied that Bae had done something that warranted being thrown into prison, but would not be drawn on what it was.
Bae, a 45-year-old tour operator, was arrested in November 2012 as he entered the northeastern port city of Rason.
The North described him as a Christian evangelist who smuggled inflammatory material into the country and sentenced him to 15 years’ hard labour for allegedly seeking to topple the government.
North Korea will hold elections to its rubber-stamp parliament in March, opening a rare window on possible power shifts in the isolated state following the execution of leader Kim’s uncle.
The presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly decided the election — held every five years — would take place on March 9, KCNA said Wednesday.