SEOUL, South Korea — Ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman hung out Thursday with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on the third day of his improbable journey with VICE to Pyongyang, watching the Harlem Globetrotters with Kim and later dining on sushi and drinking with him at his palace.
“You have a friend for life,” Rodman told Kim before a crowd of thousands at a gymnasium where they sat side by side, chatting as they watched players from North Korea and the U.S. play, according to Alex Detrick, a spokesman for the New York-based VICE media company.
Rodman arrived in Pyongyang Monday with three members of the Globetrotters basketball team, VICE correspondent Ryan Duffy and a production crew to shoot an episode on North Korea for a new weekly HBO series.
The unlikely encounter makes Rodman the most high-profile American to meet Kim since the young North Korean leader took power in December 2011, and takes place against a backdrop of tension between Washington and Pyongyang. North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test just 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 Chicago Bulls star he hoped the visit would break the ice between the United States and North Korea, VICE founder Shane Smith said.
Dressed in a blue Mao suit, Kim laughed and slapped his hands on the table before him during the game as he sat nearly knee to knee with Rodman. Rodman, the man who once turned up in a wedding dress to promote his autobiography, wore a dark suit and dark sunglasses, but still had on his nose rings and other piercings.
A can of Coca-Cola sat on the table before him.
“The crowd was really engaged, laughed at all of the Globetrotters antics, and actually got super loud towards the end as the score got close,” said Duffy, who suited up for the game in a blue uniform emblazoned with “United States of America. “Most fun I’ve had in a while.”
Kim and Rodman chatted in English, but Kim primarily spoke in Korean through a translator, Smith said after speaking to the VICE crew in Pyongyang.
“They bonded during the game,” Smith said after speaking to the crew.
“They were both enjoying the crazy shots, and the Harlem Globetrotters were putting on quite a show.”
The surprise visit by the flamboyant Hall of Famer known as “The Worm” makes him an unlikely ambassador at a time when North Koreans are girding for battle with the U.S. Just last week, Kim guided troops in military exercises.
North Korea and the U.S. 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.
Thursday’s game ended in a 110-110 draw, with two Americans playing on each team alongside North Koreans, Detrick said. The Xinhua News Agency first reported on the game, citing witnesses who attended.
After the game, Rodman addressed Kim in a speech before a crowd of tens of thousands, telling him, “You have a friend for life,” Detrick said.
At a lavish dinner at Kim’s palace, the leader plied the group with food and drinks as the group made round after round of toasts.