(In para 5, corrects to 4th from 3rd trip)
By James Pearson and David Chance
SEOUL, Jan 9 (Reuters) - 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 fellow professionals.
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.
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 a statement.
“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The fading basketball star’s trips had been financed by Irish bookmaker Paddy Power, although it has now withdrawn its funding and the colourful Rodman used his first visit in 2013 to promote his own vodka brand.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 state 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 the North. (Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)