Dennis Rodman arrived in North Korea on Thursday for his third visit this year to the hard-line Stalinist country, saying he will train the country's national basketball team and see his "friend," leader Kim Jong Un.
Rodman's visit comes just a week after Kim's uncle, Jang Song Thaek, was executed for treason. The demise of Jang, a top government official, appears to have been part of an internal purge and has largely ended speculation that the youngish Kim, who became the country's supreme leader after his father's death two years ago, might usher in a kinder, gentler era.
Speaking in Beijing en route to Pyongyang, Rodman said he was "very proud" to call Kim his friend.
"[He] hasn't done anything to put a damper or to say negative things about my country," the ex-NBA player said.
Rodman said he hoped his trip would "open doors for America."
The Los Angeles Times reports:
"Publicity materials for the event indicate that Rodman plans to bring 'NBA stars' to play against the North Koreans, though no names of any participating players have been announced."
"We're going to have 12 American guys, ex-NBA ballplayers, going back saying really, really nice things, really, really, cool things about this country," Rodman said during his layover in Beijing, adding, if he accomplishes that, "then I've done my job."
Meanwhile, the Pentagon on Thursday expressed concern that the execution of Jang might have some deeper, more ominous meaning.
"These kind of internal actions by dictators are often a precursor to provocation to distract attention from what they're doing inside of that country," Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon news conference.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said North Korea's motives are "concerning to everyone" because the country "is as closed as any nation in the world. There is no transparency."
In February, Rodman became the only Westerner to have had a one-on-one with the reclusive Kim. The two were photographed watching North Korea's top players and three members of the Harlem Globetrotters perform on the court.
After the visit, Rodman said of Kim, "I love the guy. He's awesome. He's so honest."