Rodman, who has met with Kim – purportedly a basketball fan – on two of his previous three visits, is leading a team of former NBA players who will play an exhibition game on Wednesday, Kim’s 31st birthday.
Speaking to reporters after flying in from Beijing, Rodman said the team members wanted to come to North Korea to help “open the doors.”
“Most people that come here they say, hey North Korea. It’s not – it’s not bad, you know. The marshal [Kim Jong-un] is actually trying to change this country in a great way.”
Of the world’s 192 countries North Korea has arguably the worst human rights record. Its treatment of Christians has placed the country at the top of Open Doors’ annual list of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians for the past 11 consecutive years.
Open Doors said Monday that as many as 70,000 Christians are among the more than 200,000 North Koreans incarcerated in the country’s notorious prison camps.
Last month Kim had his uncle Jang Song-taek, once described as the second most powerful man in the regime, removed from all posts and then executed. Kim accused him of treason and corruption, and in a New Year message said the ruling party had acted to eliminate “scum” and “factionalist filth.”
The Simon Wiesenthal Center was convening a press conference in New York on Monday urging the former NBA stars not to take part in the game in honor of Kim.
In an earlier statement the Jewish human rights group’s associate dean, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, called the game “an undeserved birthday gift to murderous tyrant who heads a regime with the worst human rights record on the planet.”
“Playing a basketball game in Pyongyang before a handful of cronies of the youthful dictator gives Kim Jong-un an undeserved birthday present that enables Kim to change the narrative for the international media from focusing attention on his execution of his uncle, on North Korea’s brutal gulag, and his nuclear missile threats against his neighbors.”
During Rodman’s most recent previous trip, shortly after Jang’s execution last month, he reportedly helped to train basketball players.
His two earlier visits included meetings with Kim, who was seen in a state media broadcast watching a game with the American last February.