By Jethro Mullen. Laura Smith-Spark and Tom Watkins
(CNN) — Eccentric basketball star Dennis Rodman’s bizarre outburst about an American citizen jailed in North Korea has drawn widespread criticism, including from the prisoner’s family.
Rodman is in North Korea with other former NBA players for a basketball game against a local team that’s due to take place Wednesday, the birthday of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
Rodman, 52, who visited North Korea three times previously in the past year, describes Kim as a beloved friend, shrugging off the regime’s heavily criticized human rights record.
In an exclusive interview from Pyongyang on Tuesday, he reacted angrily to a question from Chris Cuomo of CNN’s “New Day” about whether he was planning to ask North Korean leaders about Kenneth Bae, a U.S. citizen who was sentenced to 15 years in a labor camp by North Korea last year on accusations that he intended to topple the government through religious activities.
Rodman suggested that Bae, a Korean-American whose health has deteriorated during his imprisonment, 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,” Rodman said, before abruptly switching the topic to talk about how his fellow basketball players had left their families behind to come to North Korea for the exhibition game.
Prisoner’s family ‘appalled’
Bae’s sister, Terri Chung, told “Anderson Cooper 360” that Rodman’s comments were shocking and outrageous.
Bae, a married father of three, has suffered a series of health problems during his detention and has been transferred from the labor camp to a hospital.
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 and has said Bae’s offenses included planning a “Jericho operation” to bring down its government through religious activities. The regime accused Bae of urging people to carry out “hostile acts” against the state.
Chung said Tuesday 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, when he was arrested in November 2012. She said 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 family on Wednesday released a statement — with the title “Dennis Rodman: No Diplomacy, No Kindness or Decency for Kenneth Bae” — that repeated calls for Bae’s release.
Rodman ‘crossed a line’
Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also criticized Rodman’s comments, telling CNN he was “disappointed” by the former NBA star’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,” said Richardson, who worked to secure the release of an American held in North Korea in 1996. “There is no crime. Kenneth Bae is an American detainee that’s been there a year in bad health, who deserves to come home.”
Richardson, a former New Mexico governor who has visited North Korea multiple times, said Rodman “drank a little bit too much of the Kool-Aid from the North Koreans.”
Rodman’s comments Tuesday contrast with a request he made on Twitter in May for Kim to “do me a solid and cut Kenneth Bae loose.”
Rodman 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.
He has described his series of trips to North Korea as a “basketball diplomacy” project.
But U.S. government officials have said that they have nothing to do with the visits and that attention should be focused on the brutality of Kim’s regime.
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.”
‘He’s a wacko’
Laura Ling, an American journalist who along with a colleague was held prisoner by North Korea in 2009, said Rodman’s comments about Bae were “incomprehensible.”
“He’s a wacko, he’s a nut,” she said on “Anderson Cooper 360.” “But I don’t think that anyone expects him to be this ambassador or to produce this diplomatic breakthrough. At least we shouldn’t — that would be pretty scary if Dennis Rodman was our envoy.”
But she said hoped the basketball players’ visit could result in North Korea releasing Bae “as a compassionate, humanitarian gesture in turn.”
Ling said her North Korean detention, which ended when former President Bill Clinton helped secure her release, was “the most terrifying time of my life.”
But she added that she also saw “glimmers of compassion and humanity exhibited toward me by some of my captors.”
Ling said she hoped the interaction through basketball could introduce the North Korean people to a “a more positive side” of the West, offering a counterpoint to the state-run media’s intense vilification of the United States and its allies.
‘I love my friend’
Rodman, whose nickname is “The Worm,” defended the visit to North Korea in his interview with Cuomo, saying it was a “great idea for the world.”
He became upset when pressed on whether he and the other players 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’s once powerful uncle, Jang Song Thaek.
“I love my friend,” Rodman said in a reference to Kim. “This is my friend.”
He praised his companions’ willingness to visit North Korea.
“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.”
Ready for ‘the abuse’
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 eventually “open the door” to North Korea for other people.
Smith pointed out that the group comprised not only ex-players, but some 40 other people, including a number of other Americans.
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.
The planned game between the former NBA players and a North Korean team hasn’t so far received any coverage in North Korea’s tightly controlled state media.
‘We’re not ambassadors’
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,” he 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.”
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 NBA distanced itself from Rodman on Tuesday.
“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.”
CNN’s Steve Almasy contributed to this report.
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