(Adds North Korean media coverage of game)
By James Pearson and David Chance
SEOUL Jan 9 Retired U.S. basketball star Dennis
Rodman headed for a North Korean ski resort on Thursday after
staging a match in Pyongyang for dictator Kim Jong Un's birthday
that has drawn the ire of human rights activists and some of his
A source with direct knowledge of Rodman's itinerary said
the 52-year old was on a helicopter to the new multimillion
dollar resort which is one of Kim's showcase projects.
It was not immediately clear if Kim, who is believed to have
celebrated his 31st birthday on Wednesday, was with Rodman on
the flight. The source declined to be named due to the
sensitivity of the issue.
On Wednesday, Rodman led a chorus of North Koreans singing
"Happy Birthday" to the leader of the isolated and heavily
sanctioned country at a basketball match that Kim attended with
his young wife.
North Korean state media said the song was "reflecting
(Rodman's) reverence" for Kim Jong Un, and that he had organised
the game as a gift for his birthday, confirming for the first
time the young leader's date of birth.
The Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of North Korea's
ruling Workers' Party, dedicated its front page on Thursday to
coverage of the event and published photos of Kim sitting and
laughing with Rodman at the basketball game.
"Dennis Rodman said he was overjoyed and teared up when he
met the Dear Respected Marshall again," the front page article
Rodman's fourth trip to North Korea has drawn criticism from
human rights activists and the family of imprisoned U.S.
missionary Kenneth Bae after Rodman appeared to suggest in an
interview peppered with obscenities that Bae, rather than the
North Korean authorities, was responsible for his incarceration.
Bae's sister, Terri Chung, said her family was outraged by
Rodman's comments and he should use his access to the North
Korean leader to advocate on Bae's behalf, rather than "hurl
outrageous accusations" at her brother.
"He is playing games with my brother's life," Chung said in
"He is clearly uninformed about Kenneth's case, and he is
certainly not in any position to pass judgment," Chung said,
adding that Bae never had hostile intentions against the state.
FADING STAR IS KIM'S "FRIEND"
The fading basketball star's trips had been financed by
Irish bookmaker Paddy Power, although it has now
withdrawn its funding and the colourful Rodman used his first
visit in 2013 to promote his own vodka brand.
It is not known whether Rodman has the capacity to fund
another trip. North Korea rarely pays for this kind of visit,
according to experts on the country.
Rodman has described Kim, who has been in power for just
over two years as his "friend".
Kim has presided over two long range rocket launches -
banned under United Nations sanctions due to Pyongyang's nuclear
weapons and proliferation efforts - a nuclear test and last year
threatened to attack South Korea, Japan and the United States.
Last month, his uncle Jang Song Thaek was executed in one of
the biggest and most public purges undertaken in North Korea,
which has been ruled by the same family for three generations.
Jang is just one of hundreds of thousands North Koreans who
have faced death or imprisonment in the North. An estimated
150,000-200,000 people live in brutal conditions in the
country's political prisons and forced labour camps, according
to rights activists.
Defectors from the isolated country have testified to summary
executions and rampant human rights abuses on North Korea. They
say they were starved, beaten and abused in work camps where
many die and that babies born in the camps were killed.
While North Koreans suffer from food shortages and
malnutrition, according to United Nations assessments, Kim has
pushed ahead with massive building projects such as the Masik
Ski Resort that Rodman will visit.
South Korean officials estimate it cost hundreds of millions
of dollars to build and North Korea aims to make $43.75 million
in annual profit from the resort, according to documents
prepared for potential foreign investors. It expects up to 5,000
skiers to visit per day.
Pictures released at the resort opening late last year
showed just one ancient chair lift for the resort and an
assortment of snow equipment that appeared to have been imported
despite a United Nations ban on the export of "luxury" goods to
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)