UK & World News
Dennis Rodman: I Love My Friend Kim Jong-Un
US basketball star Dennis Rodman has told Sky News he "loves" the North Korean leader and claims that "when the time comes" he will discuss human rights with Kim Jong-Un.
Mr Rodman was speaking at Beijing airport as he departed for his latest trip to the secretive country.
He is travelling to Pyongyang with a group of 11 American basketball players for a match marking Mr Kim's birthday on Wednesday.
He said: "The only thing we are doing right now, as you can see right now, is all the NBA players here to play a game right now.
"And that's the one thing we're trying to do right now."
It is almost universally accepted that North Korea has the worst human rights record in the world.
As many as 200,000 political prisoners are locked up in labour camps around the country. Escapees have said that torture is routine.
Asked whether he would bring up the subject of labour camps, Mr Rodman said it was not his job.
Given that he is the only American with such unprecedented access to Mr Kim, Sky News put it to him that it was his responsibility to raise the issue.
"That's not my job," he said. "The only thing I am doing right now, I am only doing one thing: this game is for his birthday. It's for his birthday.
"And I hope that if this opens doors and we can actually talk about certain things, then we can do certain things, but I am not going to sit there and go in and say 'hey guy, you're doing the wrong thing'.
"That's not the right thing to do. He's my friend first. He's my friend. I don't give a ****. I tell the world: he's my ******* friend, I love him."
Under the North Korean regime's "three generations of punishment" system, individuals found guilty of a crime are sent to the labour camps with their entire family.
The subsequent two generations of that family are then born in the camp and live their lives locked up inside.
Mr Rodman was asked if he was aware of the 200,000 or so political prisoners in North Korea.
He replied: "Are you aware that lots of people in America is locked up like that too?"
Mr Rodman's unlikely friendship with Mr Kim dates back to February last year when he accompanied the US documentary maker Vice to North Korea with the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.
Sky News understands that Mr Rodman initially believed he was going to meet the South Korean pop star Psy.
He even tweeted that he might bump into the star behind the hit song Gangnam Style.
For reasons which are yet to become clear, Mr Rodman and Mr Kim became friends.
Sky News has obtained a previously unpublished photograph of Mr Rodman riding one of Mr Kim's horses in August, thought to have been taken at the North Korean leader's ranch outside Pyongyang.
Mr Kim does not speak English and Mr Rodman does not speak Korean.
Their conversations are conducted through North Korean interpreters.
This latest trip was due to be sponsored by the Irish bookmaker Paddy Power.
However, on Christmas Eve, the bookmaker claimed it had pulled its participation.
"Given changed circumstances, Paddy Power has decided to withdraw its association with the Dennis Rodman basketball initiative in North Korea," the company said in a statement.
However, Sky News understands that the bookmaker will continue to provide funding for the trip in order to honour its contractual obligations.
North Korean analysts are split over whether engagement with North Korea by an unusual and eccentric American is an unpalatable publicity stunt or an opportunity for future dialogue.
Dr Daniel Pinkston, North East Asia deputy project director at International Crisis Group, was supportive of the relationship when the Paddy Power event was announced.
"The last few years have been difficult for North Korea watchers seeking new policy prescriptions for dealing with Pyongyang," Dr Pinkston said in a statement on Paddy Power's website in September.
"Thanks to the support of Paddy Power, Rodman's visit had opened a window of opportunity to bring change to North Korea."
In December, Shin Dong-Hyuk, the only person born in a North Korean prison camp known to have escaped to the West, wrote an open letter to Mr Rodman calling on him to engage with Mr Kim.
"I am writing to you, Mr Rodman, because, more than anything else, I want Kim Jong-Un to hear the cries of his people," he wrote.
"Maybe you could use your friendship and your time together to help him understand that he has the power to close the camps and rebuild the country's economy so everyone can afford to eat."
As Mr Rodman left Beijing airport on this latest trip, he left that possibility open.
"When the time comes when I do that I am going to sit down and talk to all the people around the world, when the time comes, I am going to tell you everything that happens.
"But right now I want these guys to go over there and put on a good show for his birthday.
"We will talk about political stuff and anything about refugee camps."
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