BEIJING (CNN) — Dennis Rodman is apologizing. Again.
Last week, he said he was sorry about his bizarre, drunken outburst on CNN about an American citizen held prisoner in North Korea.
Now, Rodman says he’s sorry about what’s going on inside North Korea, a nation renowned for its human rights abuses.
But the eccentric former NBA star known as “The Worm” isn’t contrite about his latest puzzling visit to the secretive state.
He said he did nothing wrong by organizing a basketball game last week at a packed stadium in Pyongyang, an event at which he sang “Happy Birthday” to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“I’m sorry for what’s going on in North Korea, the certain situations,” Rodman told CNN on Monday after arriving at Beijing International Airport from Pyongyang.
He didn’t say exactly what those “situations” are. He may have been referring to the reports of horrific human rights abuses by his friend Kim’s regime, or to the estimated 200,000 people kept in political prison camps.
Or maybe he was talking about Kenneth Bae, the U.S. citizen sentenced last year to 15 years of hard labor by North Korea on accusations that he planned to bring down the government through religious activities.
He was certainly less boisterous than when he spoke to CNN’s Chris Cuomo last week. In that interview, he appeared to suggest that Bae may have done something to deserve his heavy sentence.
After his on-air rant drew criticism from Bae’s family and others, Rodman apologized, saying he’d been drinking and was under stress.
In Beijing on Monday, returning from a weeklong visit to North Korea, he struck a more humble tone.
“I’m not God, I’m not (an) ambassador, I’m no one,” he said. “I just want to show the world the fact that we can actually get along in sport. That is it!”
‘I love America’
Rodman has described Kim, whose once powerful uncle was recently purged and executed, as a friend and a “very good guy.”
He said he was happy that by playing basketball with and in front of North Koreans — an approach dubbed “basketball diplomacy” — he and the other former NBA players who accompanied him had tried to “do something good for the world.”
But Rodman said he was sad that “everyone is trying to break this down, to push it on me.”
“I don’t know why,” he said. “I haven’t done anything wrong. Nothing wrong!”
Some observers have said Rodman’s “basketball diplomacy” may have positive effects in North Korea by offering the people there a different view of the West, compared with its demonic portrayal in the country’s tightly controlled state media.
But others, including human rights activists, say it’s an embarrassing media sideshow that distracts attention from the North Korean regime’s brutality.
Rodman rejected suggestions that he had betrayed his country by befriending Kim, a dictator whose regime’s rhetoric describes the United States as a mortal enemy.
“I love America. I love my country.” he said. “I’d never damage my country.”
Caught in the middle
Retired NBA player Cliff Robinson, who went on the trip, said Monday on CNN’s “New Day” that he was surprised by the backlash the trip generated back home and was unaware the game would coincide with Kim’s birthday. But he was apprehensive about criticizing Rodman.
“Dennis is a great guy. Dennis is going to be Dennis,” he said. “I don’t want to sit here and ever put someone that I’ve supported and throw them under the bus. We’re grown men. There’s newspapers, there’s media outlets. I wouldn’t say that Dennis didn’t tell us, because we’re in a position that the trip happened quick, but we could have probably done a little more homework as to what was going on, or ask Dennis questions.”
Last week, NBA Commissioner David Stern said the former NBA players were “blinded by the payday,” but the players have been adamant that North Korea did not pay them.
“Absolutely not. I think I am astute enough to understand the dynamics, especially collecting monetary dollars from North Korea. No, we did not get paid from North Korea at all,” Rodman teammate Charles Smith told CNN in a lengthy exclusive interview on “New Day Sunday.”
Smith, who retired from the NBA in 1997 after nine seasons, said an Irish online betting company and a documentary film crew paid expenses for the ex-players turned hoops ambassadors.
Last month, the Irish company Paddy Power said it had removed its name from Rodman’s project after the execution of Kim’s uncle and top aide, Jang Song Thaek. But it said it would honor its “contractual commitments” to the team.
Speaking by satellite from Beijing, Smith said it wasn’t about the money. He saw it as an opportunity to go to a reclusive country and exchange cultural information with other athletes and citizens. But he didn’t see it as a birthday present for Kim.
“That’s the date that was set. I didn’t know it was his birthday,” he said in the half-hour interview. “And it didn’t matter to me once I found out that it was his birthday.”
Smith said he felt for Rodman, who asked for his help organizing the trip and who really seemed to want to pull off a big event.
“I saw the pressure mount. I saw him change, and it was very difficult keeping him and everyone together” once the controversy over traveling to North Korea began, he said.
Smith said that advocating for Bae’s release wasn’t on their agenda.
“We didn’t go there for that. We went there to do what we normally do, and that’s to be cross-cultural ambassadors and use the game of basketball as a bridge for exchange,” he said.
CNN’s Yuli Yang reported from Beijing, and Jethro Mullen reported and wrote from Hong Kong. CNN’s Steve Almasy contributed to this report.
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By Jethro Mullen and Yuli Yang