BEIJING _ Dennis Rodman and a group of other former NBA players arrived Monday in North Korea, where they're set to face off against a local basketball team on Wednesday, which is leader Kim Jong Un's birthday.
Rodman recruited former NBA all-stars Kenny Anderson, Cliff Robinson and Vin Baker, along with several other former pros, to accompany him to the Hermit Kingdom for the game, his fourth "basketball diplomacy" mission to the country.
Rodman went ahead with the trip despite sharp criticism for cozying up to the repressive government. Irish bookmaker Paddy Power recently withdrew its name as the sponsor of the event _ originally dubbed the "Big Bang in Pyongyang: Hoops, Not Nukes" _ after news broke in December that Kim had purged his uncle, Jang Song Taek, and had him executed.
In New York, Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., condemned the planned game as "bizarre and grotesque" at a news conference with a woman and her daughter who had escaped North Korea.
"I don't think we should ignore the real suffering in this gulag state," said Engel, minority leader of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, according to Time magazine. "And Dennis Rodman wants to go there and play basketball. It would be like inviting Adolf Hitler to lunch."
Rodman, 52, visited Pyongyang, the capital, last month to help train the North Korean squad shortly after the execution of Jang, the country's de facto second in command. Jang, 67, was accused of plotting to overthrow the government. Though Rodman has declared Kim a "friend for life," Rodman has said he did not meet the North Korean leader on his December trip.
The U.S. government has made it clear that Rodman is not an official ambassador, and human rights groups have taken him to task for not speaking out forcefully against the Pyongyang government's dismal record. Rodman has so far appeared unable or unwilling to do so.
"It's about trying to connect two countries together in the world, to let people know that: Do you know what? Not every country in the world is that bad, especially North Korea," Rodman told the Associated Press outside his Beijing hotel Monday before his flight to North Korea.
"People say so many negative things about North Korea. And I want people in the world to see it's not that bad."