BEIJING - To mark the birthday of Kim Jung Un, North Korea's young, basketball-loving dictator, Dennis Rodman and a team of U.S. basketball players took on a North Korean team in the capital Pyongyang Wednesday.
After months of build-up, and mounds of controversy, Rodman's "basketball diplomacy" delivered an exhibition game that excited a capacity crowd of around 14,000 at the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium.
Before the game started, Rodman sang Happy Birthday to Kim, who along with his wife and other senior officials and their wives watched from a special seating area.
In addition to Rodman, the former NBA players included ex-All Stars Kenny Anderson, Cliff Robinson and Vin Baker. Also on the roster were Craig Hodges, Doug Christie, Charles D. Smith and four streetballers.
Smith said he and the other players did not join Rodman in singing the birthday song.
"We always tell Dennis that he can't sing. He is tone deaf," Smith said. "He did it alone."
But Rodman's brand of "diplomacy" has raised questions over whether U.S. players should be engaging with one of the world's most repressive regimes. Rodman says he wants to "open the door" of the highly isolated state, and refuses to criticize Kim, his "friend for life" who had his uncle executed last month.
In a CNN interview Tuesday, Rodman appeared to blame missionary Kenneth Bae, an American citizen who was born in South Korea, for his captivity in a North Korean labor camp. Defying the U.S. State Department's warnings against travel to North Korea, and with no support from the U.S. government or the NBA, whose Commissioner David Stern has criticized this latest trip, Rodman is paying his fourth visit to Pyongyang since February last year.
The reclusive Kim, who rarely meets with any foreign leaders or visitors to Pyongyang, has not even traveled to neighboring China, his state's only significant ally, since he succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il, in 2011 as the third generation of a family dictatorship founded by grandfather Kim Il Sung.
Rodman has said the game was a present for Kim Jung Un's birthday, which is said to be Jan. 8, although his age remains unconfirmed as North Korea tightly controls information on the ruling dynasty. As befits the world's longest-running personality cult, which fills state media daily with paeans of praises for the three Kims, their birthdays are major state events in North Korea.
The most important national holiday, known officially as the "Day of the Sun,'' marks the birthday of "Eternal President" Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994. "The worship system is similar to what South Koreans do in church, as Kim Il Sung is like God," Song Hyun Wook, a North Korean who defected to the South, told USA TODAY last year in Seoul. The key difference? "In North Korea, there is no choice, nor any exceptions" to worshiping the Kim family, he said.
Kim Jung Un has continued the personality cult of his father, and its military-first stance, and sports in North Korea also serve this purpose. The colorful and very public personal histories of Rodman and his fellow ex-NBA players stood in dramatic contrast to their little-known opposition Wednesday. All sporting success is automatically credited to the ruling family, and their juche philosophy of self-reliance.
Aware of the controversy their trip has caused back home in the USA, Smith remarked Tuesday of the players' disappointment at the negative reactions and press coverage. "I feel a lot of remorse for the guys because we are doing something positive, but it's a lot bigger than us," he said. "We're not skilled in those particular areas."
Still, some analysts believe cultural exchanges such as Rodman's can achieve positive impact.
"For decades, North Koreans have been told that the outside world is destitute hell, characterized by extreme poverty and suffering," Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, wrote Tuesday on the NK News website. "People inside the North are beginning to understand that they have been deceived, but it will do no harm if their suspicions are confirmed," he said. "Isolation will not change North Korea - only interaction with the outside world gives us some reason to hope."
One immediate result may benefit deaf North Koreans. On his last visit to North Korea, in December 2013, Rodman met deaf table-tennis players and officials from the Korea Federation for the Protection of the Disabled. Rodman said earlier this week that proceeds from the game would go to a charity for the deaf in Pyongyang.