Hall of Fame basketball player Dennis Rodman arrived in North Korea Monday with a team of former NBA players in tow as part of the next step of his program of so-called "basketball diplomacy."
Taking his by-now customary route, Rodman arrived in Pyongyang via Beijing Monday with a squad of a dozen former basketball stars, including Vin Baker and Cliff Robinson, despite criticism from U.S. officials.
The U.S. players are to compete in an exhibition game against a North Korean team on Wednesday, the birthday of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un.
"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 in an interview outside his hotel before heading to the Beijing airport with the team.
"People say so many negative things about North Korea. And I want people in the world to see it's not that bad."
When a reporter from Sky News suggested to Rodman that he had a responsibility to raise the issue of human rights as the only American with such access to the North Korea leader, Rodman responded "That’s not my job. The only thing I am doing right now, I am only doing one thing: this game is for his birthday. It’s for his birthday.
"And I hope that if this opens doors and we can actually talk about certain things, then we can do certain things, but I am not going to sit there and go in and say 'Hey guy, you’re doing the wrong thing.'
"That’s not the right thing to do. He’s my friend first. He’s my friend. I don’t give a (expletive). I tell the world: he’s my (expletive) friend, I love him."
The U.S. is at odds with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program, and that country's human rights record has been described as one of the world's worst by activists, the U.S. State Department and North Korean defectors.
When asked if he was aware of the estimated 200,000 political prisoners in North Korea, Rodman answered "Are you aware that lots of people in America is locked up like that too?"
The defectors have repeatedly testified about the government's alleged use of indiscriminate killings, rapes, beatings and prison camps holding as many as 120,000 people deemed opponents of authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un, the third generation of his family to rule.
"Somehow we have to get along, and no matter what disagreements or what discrepancy we have in life," Rodman said. "It's like saying: Why do we have the Olympics? When everyone one comes together in the Olympics, there's no problems. That's what I'm doing. That's all I'm doing."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.