A TOP basketball star has become the highest profile American to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un since he took power a year ago.
Dennis Rodman drank and dined on sushi with the leader of one of the world’s most repressive regimes after watching the Harlem Globetrotters take to the court.
The president is said to be a big fan of the sport.
The former player told him: “You have a friend for life” before a crowd of thousands at a gymnasium where they sat side by side, chatting as they watched players from North Korea and the United States face off in mixed teams.
Rodman arrived in the capital Pyongyang on Monday with three members of the Harlem Globetrotters exhibition basketball team and a production crew for a reality TV programme.
The unlikely encounter makes Rodman the most high-profile American to meet Kim since the North Korean leader took power in December 2011, and takes place against a backdrop of tension between Washington and Pyongyang.
South Korea yesterday stepped up pressure on the regime which has been condemned worldwide for its efforts to develop nuclear weaponry. In her first speech after her inauguration as the country’s first female president, Park Guen-hye urged North Korea to abandon its drive for nuclear weapons or facing deepening isolation.
North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test two weeks ago, making clear the provocative act was a warning to the United States to drop what it considers a “hostile” policy toward the North.
Kim, a diehard basketball fan, told the former Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls star he hoped the visit would break the ice between the US and North Korea, a spokesman for the TV production company said.
Dressed in a blue Mao suit, Kim laughed and slapped his hands on the table before him during the game at the Jong Ju Yong Gymnasium as he sat nearly knee to knee with Rodman.
Kim and Rodman chatted in English, but Kim primarily spoke in Korean through a translator, it was said.
North Korea and the US fought on opposite sides of the three-year Korean War, which ended in a truce in 1953. The foes never signed a peace treaty and do not have diplomatic relations.
Before the game, Rodman went up to Kim’s seat to offer his greetings. “Warmly welcoming him, Kim Jong Un let him sit next to him,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported.
The Americans presented Kim with a Harlem Globetrotters kit. For the half-time entertainment, taekwondo athletes showed off some moves and a “women’s brass band presented glamorous rhythmic formations”, the agency said.
The game ended in a 110-110 tie, with two Americans playing on each team alongside North Koreans.
At a lavish dinner later, the self-styled Supreme Leader plied the group with food and drink and round after round of toasts were made.
Kim said he hoped sports exchange would promote “mutual understanding between the people of the two countries,” the agency reported.
Rodman’s trip is the second attention-grabbing US visit this year to North Korea. Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt made a four-day trip in January to Pyongyang, but did not meet the North Korean leader.
In Washington, the State Department refused to comment on Rodman’s visit or his meeting with Kim. “Private, individual Americans are welcome to take actions they see fit,” a spokesman said.
He said the Obama administration was not in touch with Rodman and making no effort to contact him.