Washington (AFP) – Basketball star Dennis Rodman angrily refused to answer questions about an American compatriot jailed in North Korea on Tuesday, complaining that criticism of Pyongyang’s rights record had overshadowed an exhibition game he has organized.
The former professional basketball star plans to stage a game on Wednesday with several other former NBA players to mark the birthday of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
Asked by CNN if he would take advantage of the event to make the case that jailed American missionary Kenneth Bae should be freed, Rodman grew angry.
“I don’t give a rat’s ass what the hell you think,” Rodman told the interviewer in his tirade, broadcast from the North Korean capital.
Rodman implied that Bae had done something that warranted being thrown into prison, but would not be drawn on what it was.
“Kenneth Bae did one thing… If you understand what Kenneth Bae did,” Rodman said, in disjointed remarks that quickly devolved into a rant, gesturing for emphasis with a cigar in his hand.
“Do you understand what he did in this country? Why is he held captive here in this country. I would love to speak on this,” said Rodman, sporting lip and nasal piercings and dark sun glasses.
The four-time All Star expressed frustration that at the focus of his visit has been North Korea’s rights record, rather than sport.
“You know, you’ve got 10 guys here, 10 guys here, they’ve left their families, they’ve left their damn families, to help this country, as in a sports venture. That’s 10 guys, all these guys here, does anyone understand that?” he said.
Rodman, whose career was marred by bouts of depression and alcoholism, has developed an unlikely relationship with Kim since making his first trip to North Korea in February.
And as he has in the past, Rodman declared to CNN his affection for the North Korean leader, saying: “I love my friend.”
Another member of the basketball group, former NBA player Charles Smith, also defended the tour.
“In our minds, we came to do what we’ve been doing worldwide… that has been our intent,” Smith said, adding that the athletes had looked forward to “playing on the world stage for our country.”
“We did not know that it was going to take this type of negative spin on what we were doing, because we’re not politicians,” he said.
Bae, a 45-year-old tour operator, was arrested in November as he entered the northeastern port city of Rason.
North Korea described Bae as a Christian evangelist who smuggled inflammatory material into the country and sentenced him to 15 years’ hard labor for allegedly seeking to topple the government.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as it is officially known, is a one-party Communist state which has been ruled by the Kim dynasty since its founding.
North Korea often threatens war against South Korea and the United States and is regularly accused of human rights abuses.
Kim, who was educated in Switzerland, is reported to be a keen basketball fan and especially of the Chicago Bulls, for whom Rodman played a key role in winning three NBA titles alongside Michael Jordan in the 1990s.