PYONGYANG, North Korea (CNN)-
Dennis Rodman defended his visit to North Korea with a team of fellow former NBA players in a combative exchange Tuesday, saying the trip was a “great idea for the world.”
In an exclusive interview with Chris Cuomo of CNN’s “New Day,” Rodman reacted angrily when pressed on whether the group should have traveled there, given recent events in the secretive country.
The trip takes place weeks after North Korea announced the purge and execution of leader Kim Jong Un’s once-powerful uncle.
The other former NBA players are due to play Wednesday in a basketball game on Kim’s 31st birthday.
“I love my friend,” Rodman said in a reference to Kim during an interview carried out from Pyongyang. “This is my friend.”
Cuomo asked Rodman whether he was planning to ask North Korean leaders about Kenneth Bae, a U.S. citizen who was arrested in November 2012, convicted last spring by North Korea of “hostile acts” intended to topple the government and sentenced to 15 years in a labor camp.
In response, Rodman suggested the Korean-American had done something wrong, but did not specify what.
“Do you understand what he did in this country?” Rodman asked Cuomo. “No, no, no, you tell me, you tell me. Why is he held captive here in this country, why? … I would love to speak on this.
“You know, you’ve got 10 guys here, 10 guys here, that have left their families, they’ve left their damn families, to help this country in a sports venture. That’s 10 guys, all these guys here, do anyone understand that?”
“We do,” responded Cuomo. “And we appreciate that and we wish them well with cultural exchange.”
“No, no, no, no,” Rodman continued. “I don’t give a rat’s ass what the hell you think. I’m saying to you, look at these guys here, look at them … they dared to do one thing, they came here.”
Bae’s sister: Family in shock
Bae, a married father of three, has reportedly suffered a series of health problems during his detention.
His mother, Myunghee Bae, who visited in October, told CNN that her son was a devout Christian who had not understood the system in North Korea. North Korea is officially an atheist state.
His sister, Terri Chung, told Anderson Cooper 360 that Rodman’s comments were shocking and outrageous. But she said she was upset because Rodman didn’t use his relationship with Kim to help gain her brother’s release from the hospital.
“He was in a position to do some good and to help advocate for Kenneth,” she said. “He refused to do so. But then instead he has chosen to hurl these outrageous accusations against Kenneth. He clearly doesn’t know anything about Kenneth, about his case. And so we were appalled by that.”
She said her brother was in North Korea legally working as a tour operator. She hoped one of the former basketball players would take a chance to ask for amnesty for him.
“This isn’t some game. This is about a person’s life,” she said.
The White House reacts
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney noted that Rodman is on a private trip and that the United States has called for North Korea to release Bae. “Our views about Kenneth Bae have not changed,” he said.
“I did not see some of the comments that Mr. Rodman made, but I am not going to dignify that outburst with a response,” Carney added. “I am simply going to say that we remain gravely concerned about Kenneth Bae’s health and continue to urge the DPRK authorities to grant his amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds.”
Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told CNN he was “disappointed” by Rodman’s performance.
“I think Dennis Rodman crossed a line this morning by implying that Kenneth Bae might be guilty, by suggesting that there was a crime,” the politician said. “There is no crime. Kenneth Bae is an American detainee that’s been there a year in bad health, who deserves to come home.”
He said Rodman “drank a little bit too much of the Kool-Aid from the North Koreans.”
After Rodman’s outburst, fellow player Charles D. Smith tried to calm the discussion, but Rodman carried on.
“You’re the guy behind the mic right now,” he told Cuomo. “We’re the guys here doing one thing. We have to go back to America and take the abuse. Do you have to take the abuse? Well, we’re going to take it.”
Rodman predicted his efforts and those of his fellow athletes would “open the door” for other people to visit the country.
Smith pointed out that the group comprised not only ex-players, but some 40 other people, including a number of other Americans.
‘He’s got a great heart’
Smith defended Rodman, saying the players’ visit was about basketball, not politics. “We just hope the results are positive, and we think that they’ll be positive,” he said, noting that the Americans had interacted earlier in the day with their North Korean counterparts, talking through an interpreter.
North Korea had invited the American players as a kind of “cultural exchange” and to “put smiles on people’s faces,” not to influence the country’s leaders, Smith said.
“We are here because it’s about doing great will around the world,” he said.
Smith outlined the charity projects he has been involved in worldwide through his sport, including visiting typhoon victims in Asia.
“We’re doing what we do, we play basketball and that’s what we love to do,” Smith said.
“We did not know that it was going to take this type of a negative spin on what we were doing because we’re not politicians, we’re not ambassadors. We’re here to do what we’ve been doing most of our lives.”
Smith apologized for “the storm that has been created by our presence.” But, he added, “We’re not apologizing for doing what we do … we’re connecting people to basketball and people to people.”
He cautioned against “playing semantics” when discussing Rodman’s use of the word “friend” in describing his relationship with Kim.
“It’s an associate,” he said. “You met someone once, and it’s your friend … you can’t meet someone once or twice and take that enduring step.”
Smith added that the players were interested only in using basketball as a bridge to cultural exchange. “None of these guys are here to talk any sense into any politician,” he said.
Darren Prince, Rodman’s agent for 16 years, told CNN on Sunday that Kenny Anderson, Cliff Robinson, Vin Baker, Craig Hodges, Doug Christie and Smith would play against the North Korean senior national team.
The trip is Rodman’s fourth to the isolated nation, part of a project he has described as “basketball diplomacy.”
But the U.S. State Department has said that attention should be focused on the brutality of Kim’s regime.
The NBA distanced itself Tuesday from Rodman.
“Dennis will be Dennis, but I think there is a lot at stake here in terms of a … a very dangerous country,” outgoing NBA Commissioner David Stern said on The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.
Stern, commissioner for nearly 30 years, said the league has had preliminary discussions in the past with Pyongyang about a cultural exchange but he wouldn’t send any players to North Korea without the OK of the White House.
Stern said he believed that these former players agreed to the game for a big payday and didn’t think about the political ramifications.
He said that the league didn’t sanction the trip or collaborate with Rodman’s group.
“Sports diplomacy is a wonderful thing,” he said, mentioning that the NBA has hosted teams from China and Iran. “But they should be done in a far more dignified fashion than this particular trip is being carried out.”
‘Friend for life’
Rodman, 52, struck up a friendship with Kim last February, when he first traveled to North Korea with a team of Harlem Globetrotters for an exhibition game that was watched by Kim, who is a basketball fan.
Kim met and dined with the flamboyant athlete, and Rodman — unswayed by international condemnation of the country’s human rights record — told his host he had “a friend for life.”
However, on his last trip — which took place last month — less than a week after North Korea announced the execution of Kim’s uncle and top aide, Jang Song Thaek — the two men did not meet.
The international outcry over the killing of Jang has prompted Paddy Power, the online betting company that had supported Rodman’s project, to withdraw its association with the event.
But Rodman has pressed on with the plan. Last month, on his previous trip, he met and coached the North Korean team.
By Laura Smith-Spark and Tom Watkins
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