Rodman to try 'basketball diplomacy' with North Korea

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Former NBA player Dennis Rodman hopes some "basketball diplomacy" will open doors with North Korea and possibly lead to dialogue between its leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Barack Obama.

Rodman plans to train a North Korean basketball team for a pair of exhibition matches against a U.S. team in the isolated, communist-ruled country in January, Rodman told a news conference on Monday following his second visit to North Korea this year for meetings with Kim.

"I would love to make this a gimmick and make a (bunch) of money, but it's not about the money," Rodman said. "It's about trying to open Obama's and everyone's minds and, guess what, you don't have to talk about politics. Talk about anything in the world. Meet him in Switzerland, meet him in London, meet him in Ireland, just meet him or even give him a call. That's all he wants."

Rodman's previous visit in February came shortly after North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in defiance of U.N. resolutions. Rodman said upon his return from that trip that Kim wanted to receive a call from Obama, an avid basketball fan.

The White House has said the United States has direct channels of communication with North Korea and declined to directly respond to Rodman's message that Kim hoped to hear from Obama after his last visit.

The former NBA star said Monday he would conduct the first-ever television interview with Kim, who "wants to change," and described him as a friend.

Rodman said he was going back to North Korea for a week in December to assemble and train a North Korean team for two games against an American team on January 8, Kim's birthday, and January 10 in Pyongyang, the capital.

Kim's date of birth remains publicly unconfirmed and he is believed to be 30.

Succeeding his father and grandfather as leader of the secretive and impoverished Asian country, Kim has presided over two long-range rocket launches and a nuclear test in February, which drew condemnation from around the world.

The United Nations has said systematic human rights violations including arbitrary detentions in prison camps, the use of torture and public executions and widespread hunger have persisted since Kim took over after his father's death in 2011.

'TRYING TO CHANGE'

"I've said this to him," Rodman said when asked if these issues arose during the trip. "I said, 'Your grandfather and your father did some bad things,' I said, 'but you are trying to change something.'"

One expert called Rodman's efforts "entertaining" but "irrelevant" to international diplomacy over North Korea's nuclear program or human rights record.

"I can't think of any serious expert that thinks Rodman has created a window of opportunity for us to somehow reach out to North Korea," said Jae Ku, director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

Rodman may nonetheless prove an unusual source of intelligence on the secretive country, Ku said, pointing out that he apparently revealed for the first time in an interview with the Guardian on Sunday that Kim had named his daughter Ju-ae.

The goal of the basketball games was "to open doors," said Rodman, an expert rebounder and defensive player who won NBA championships with the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls and has been known for his flamboyant hair styles, cross-dressing and relationship with Madonna.

In May, Rodman wrote a message on Twitter calling for Kim to release Kenneth Bae, the Korean-American Christian missionary who was arrested in North Korea last year and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for plotting to overthrow the government.

On Monday, Rodman said it wasn't his job to secure Bae's release but suggested what he called "basketball diplomacy" might help Bae's case.

The reference recalled "ping pong diplomacy" which was credited with playing a role in the United States normalizing relations with China. It was used to refer to a tour of American table tennis players for a series of exhibition matches in China in 1971.

(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Cynthia Osterman)

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