CHICAGO • Dennis Rodman is preparing to thrill North Korean fans during an exhibition basketball tour there late next month.
Though he ducked questions in an interview with The Associated Press about whether his Christmas-time visit would be used for propaganda purposes by Kim Jong Un, the 29-year-old leader of one of the world’s most repressive regimes, Rodman said he’ll be accompanied on the trip by a dozen or so former NBA players. But he refused to name names.
"I have seven people right now," Rodman said. "I talked to a couple of guys last week. Lot of guys are saying, ‘OK, great. I’ll go. We’ll go.’ But I’m not saying this to get people to go over there to prove a point — ‘OK, great, let’s go over there and make a difference.’
"No-o-o-o-o-o," he continued. "Let’s go over there because this is a great opportunity for everyone to see a different culture. ... ‘This country is so bad. This city is so bad.’ OK, great, come see it and tell the world when you come back, ‘Hey, it’s not as bad as you think.’ And that’s why I’m taking NBA players over there, to show them, so they can come back and talk about it."
Back in the news as a self-appointed ambassador and friend of Kim, Rodman returned Thursday to where he won the last three of his five NBA championships playing alongside Michael Jordan. On a promotional tour to pitch a vodka brand, Rodman, 52, held court downtown amid camera flashes.
Rodman said he wouldn’t talk about his relationship with Kim or North Korean politics, including its widely condemned human-rights record and secretive nuclear weapons program. Though he eventually touched on those subjects, Rodman glossed over several related questions and largely ignored a challenge to his answer about whether North Korea was holding U.S. citizens as hostages, including 85-year-old Korean War veteran Merrill Newman.
The Swedish Embassy is negotiating on behalf of Newman because the U.S. has no diplomatic ties to North Korea. Rodman’s friendship with Kim has afforded him the kind of access denied statesmen from the West and even U.S. President Barack Obama. Rodman came under criticism for being "naive" during a previous visit to North Korea, where he was photographed often with Kim, and some members of the diplomatic community fear his antics could further aggravate already-sensitive negotiations.
Rodman said his reasons for returning were much more personal and beyond that, Kim’s motives were not his concern.
"Like I told you, this is not all about trying to create this major buzz," Rodman said. "Because I don’t want my friend to sit there and say I been doing this all along to slip in some information on him. I don’t want that. That’s why I’m not doing that. We’re friends and that’s it.
"This ain’t about me trying to be a politician and try to get some scoop on him and stuff like that. ... He’s my friend first. Other than that, I don’t give a damn what ... he does."
Rodman began his NBA career with the Detroit Pistons in 1986. It ended in 2000, after failed attempts to catch on with both the Lakers and Mavericks. Whether or not he misses the game, it’s clear he enjoys being back in the limelight, detractors and all.
"People say, ‘what do you do for a living?’ I don’t know. I just float around the world. Basically, I don’t do anything. I do a lot of major things around the world. I do things that is very significant right now, and people are actually paying attention to Dennis Rodman now.
"Back when I was doing my finagling in sports, they thought I was a joke. They thought I was a cartoon character or something like that. All of a sudden now, people are taking me seriously. You know, an ambassador all around the world," he added.
"It’s like ... I think things have come full circle."
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.