BEIJING (AP) — Former basketball star Dennis Rodman left North Korea on Monday, but he plans to return next month — even if a sponsor won’t be with him.
Rodman’s short visit was aimed at finalizing plans to bring 11 other former NBA players to Pyongyang for a Jan. 8 exhibition game marking Kim Jong Un’s birthday. The two struck up a friendship when Rodman first traveled to the secretive state earlier this year, but Rodman did not answer questions from the media on whether he had met with Kim this time.
Rodman is the highest profile American to meet Kim since the leader inherited power from his father in late 2011.
He wants to bring the group of players to Pyongyang for the exhibition, but has acknowledged that some of the Americans have been reluctant to come. He held tryouts for the North Korean team during his visit, which began Thursday. He has said he expects to announce the U.S. roster soon, and that he is planning another game in June.
Later Monday, though, Irish betting company Paddy Power PLC — a driving force behind the exhibition — said it had cut ties with Rodman.
“Given changed circumstances, Paddy Power has decided to withdraw its association with the Dennis Rodman basketball initiative in North Korea,” the company said in a statement.
Power explained his company’s decision in an email to The Associated Press.
“This isn’t a financial decision. We’ll be honoring all our contractual commitments to Dennis and his team,” he wrote. “We’ve reviewed the project, and with the benefit of hindsight, we’ve recognized we’ve got this one wrong.
“Because of this, we have decided to remove our name from the event.”
Rodman declined to answer questions from reporters on his arrival at Beijing’s airport if the two met on his latest visit. On Sunday night, though, he told The Associated Press that he had not yet had a meeting with Kim. He arrived in North Korea on Thursday, a week after North Korea announced the execution of Kim’s once-powerful uncle, sparking speculation by foreign analysts over the future of the Kim regime.
Rodman’s agent acknowledged Paddy Power’s decision, and also said the game is on track despite the recent execution of Kim’s uncle in a dramatic political purge.
“We’ve worked with Paddy Power on several occasions before and we respect their decision,” Darren Prince said. “We’d like to thank them for all their solid work helping to make Dennis’ dream of basketball diplomacy a reality.”