- (Reuters/KCNA for Reuters TV)
Before leaving North Korea Friday as part of his "basketball diplomacy" visit, ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman praised leader Kim Jong Un for being an "awesome guy," adding he and his father were "great leaders."
Rodman, who is now the most high-profile American to meet Kim Jong Un, told local media outside of the Pyongyang's Sunan airport before departing that it was "amazing how [Kim Jong Un] was so honest."
"Guess what, his grandfather, and his father were great leaders, and he's such a proud man," Rodman, who was visiting the country along with the famed American basketball exhibition team the Harlem Globetrotters, said. "He's proud, his country likes him – not like him, love him, love him," Rodman said. "Guess what, I love him. The guy's really awesome."
Many have described Rodman's visit to North Korea and his blatant praise of Kim Jong Un as being strange, especially because of the mutual hostility between the U.S. and North Korea. There is no formal diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea, and the U.S. is regularly condemning the North's for its suspected nuclear program. Until 2008, North Korea was on America's "State Sponsors of Terrorism" list.
And just in January, North Korea began a series of nuclear tests and rocket launches while also singling out the U.S. as its "sworn enemy."
North Korea has also been named as the No.1 Christian persecutor for 11 straight years by Open Doors. Being a Christian is illegal in North Korea, and those found to possess a Bible or of following Jesus are thrown into hard labor concentration camps or in some cases, publicly executed. Open Doors reported in January that two North Korean Christians were shot because of their faith. One was shot while leaving for Bible training in China, and the other one died in a labor camp.
And according to the World Food Program, about one in every three children in North Korea is chronically malnourished or "stunted," or too short for their age. And a quarter of all pregnant or breast-feeding women are malnourished. About 68 percent of the North's population receive public food ration through the country's Public Distribution System.
Kim Jong Un, 30, took over control of North Korea in December 2011 after his father, Kim Jong Il, passed away. Kim Jong Un's grandfather, Kim Il Sung, founded North Korea in 1948.
Kim Jung Un, who has been criticized as being a dictator who lives an extravagant life as his people starve, reportedly said that the visit was meant to facilitate amicable relations between the two countries through the power of sport.
Rodman, while attending a game between North Korea players and the Harlem Globetrotters on Thursday, told Kim Jong Un in front of a crowd of thousands that the leader "[has] a friend for life."
The two reportedly sat side-by-side while watching Thursday's game, which ended in a tied score of 110 to 110, and later they drank alcohol and dined on sushi at Kim Jong Un's palace.
Rodman, was visiting the Asian country along with four Harlem Globetrotters in an attempt to facilitate "basketball diplomacy. He was there on behalf of the New York-based Vice Media Company, which was filming a documentary on North Korea and its leader.
Rodman, who has an array of facial piercings, has made a name for himself in American pop-culture for his outlandish antics, including once wearing a wedding dress to promote his autobiography.
Some have defended Rodman and said he cannot necessarily be blamed for his brazen relations with North Korea, as he is not an expert on international relations. For example, on Feb. 26, Rodman inadvertently insulted South Korean rapper Psy, famous for his most-watched YouTube video of all time "Gangnam Style," by suggesting that Psy was from North Korea.
"May I'll run into the Gangnam style dude while I'm here," Rodman tweeted.
"I'm from #SOUTH man!!!" Psy responded.
North and South Korea are technically still at war since the Armistice Agreement in 1953. The Korean Demilitarized Zone along the 38th parallel north is the most heavily militarized border in the world.
Rodman's agent, Darren Prince, told The Associated Press that the ex-NBA star was not concerned about sparking political controversy through his visit.
"Dennis called me last night and said it's been a great experience and he made this trip out of the love of the USA," the agent told AP. "It's all about peace and love."