By Michael Pearson. Jethro Mullen and Laura Smith-Spark
(CNN) — Courting yet more controversy, Dennis Rodman on Wednesday led a singalong of “Happy Birthday” to the leader of North Korea, a man he calls a friend and a “very good guy,” but considered by many a brutal dictator who recently lauded the execution of his own uncle.
Images released by The Associated Press also show Rodman appearing to bow to Kim Jong Un at Pyongyang Indoor Stadium, the site of a basketball exhibition Wednesday — Kim’s birthday — between a North Korean team and Rodman’s squad of former NBA players and others.
“It was, as you might imagine, a bizarre and unusual occasion that won’t easily be forgotten,” Simon Cokerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, said in a YouTube video posted after he accompanied tourists to watch the match.
Even before Wednesday’s spectacle — in which his team lost to a North Korean squad 47-39, according to North Korean state media — Rodman’s visit to North Korea had already generated enormous controversy.
The colorful former NBA star known as “The Worm” elicited widespread condemnation Tuesday when he suggested in an exclusive interview with Chris Cuomo of CNN’s “New Day” that American Kenneth Bae had done something to deserve his 15-year sentence.
On Wednesday, Bae’s family accused Rodman of “playing games” with Bae’s life. Relatives and U.S. officials have insisted Bae committed no crime.
“There is no diplomacy, only games, and at my brother’s expense,” Bae’s sister, Terri Chung, said Wednesday in a prepared statement.
Bae, described by family members as a devout Christian who ran a legal tour operation in North Korea, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2012 on charges that he planned an operation to topple North Korea’s government through religious activities.
The regime also accused Bae of urging people to carry out “hostile acts” against the state.
The married father of three has suffered a series of health problems during his detention and has been transferred from a labor camp to a hospital.
Bae’s relatives say Rodman, who once urged Kim in a tweet to “do me a solid and cut Kenneth Bae loose,” could have helped put pressure on the North Korean government to release him.
Instead, she said he made the situation worse in his Tuesday CNN interview by intimating that Bae was guilty.
“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?”
Chung said Wednesday she was shocked by his statements.
“Dennis Rodman could do a lot of good by advocating for Kenneth to Kim Jong Un, but instead he has decided to hurl outrageous accusations at my brother, insinuating that Kenneth has done something sinister,” Chung said.
‘A lot of showboating’
Rodman’s trip to North Korea is his third this year.
Wednesday’s match took place at Pyongyang Indoor Stadium, according to Cokerell, whose company stages tours for Western visitors to North Korea.
After Kim emerged to cheering crowds that for several minutes wished him long life — ending only wen the leader hushed them — Rodman gave an impromptu speech, then he led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to Kim.
Rodman’s squad and a North Korean team played two games, Cokerell said. The first featured his team in a 20-minute match in a loss against the North Korean squad. The second game pitted squads with Western and North Korean players on each team, he said.
“That game was actually much better; there was a lot of showboating, showing off, alley-oops, slam-dunks and that sort of thing,” he said.
Rodman struck up a friendship with Kim in February, when he first traveled to North Korea with a team of Harlem Globetrotters for an exhibition game. He has since described Kim as a “very good guy” and his friend.
“I love my friend,” Rodman said Tuesday in a reference to Kim. “This is my friend.”
Rodman has described his series of trips to North Korea as a “basketball diplomacy” project and defended the latest trip in his interview with Cuomo, saying it was a “great idea for the world.”
Much of the rest of the world, however, has been less enthusiastic.
Western governments and human rights groups have accused North Korea of human rights abuses, including arbitrary detentions and operating a network of labor camps — including one to which Bae was reportedly sentenced before his health deteriorated.
Kim is also believed to have led a purge that culminated in the execution of his uncle, who had been instrumental in leading the current leader to power after the death of his father.
U.S. officials have taken pains to note that Rodman is on a private visit. On Tuesday, Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also criticized Rodman’s comments.
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.”
Charles D. Smith, a basketball player who accompanied Rodman on the trip, 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.”
The NBA also has distanced itself from Rodman’s trip.
“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 Tuesday on “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.”
The NBA has had preliminary discussions with Pyongyang about a cultural exchange, Stern said. But he said he wouldn’t send any players to North Korea without White House approval.
“Sports diplomacy is a wonderful thing,” he said. “But they should be done in a far more dignified fashion than this particular trip is being carried out.”
CNN’s Karl Penhaul, Connie Young, Azadeh Ansari, K.J. Kwon, Tom Watkins and Steve Almasy contributed to this report.
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