Serenading, in his words, “best friend” Kim Jong Un, supposedly on the occasion of his thirtysomething birthday, ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman is back in North Korea.

As if his fourth visit to the pariah nation were not bad enough for many of the watching American public Rodman has also raised hackles with a US TV interview.

Amid foul language and a refusal to engage in the more problematic aspects of his relationship with the North Korean dictator Rodman defended his so-called basketball diplomacy, and implied Chrjstian missionary Kenneth Bae, given 15 years hard labour, was in prison because of his actions.

Earlier this year Rodman had said he would work for his release and hoped Kim Jong Un would “Do him a solid” and release Bae, but in September Rodman said he would talk about him no more.

“Does anyone know this guy’s only 31 years old?” he said of Kim at one point in the TV interview. “Dennis, he could be 31 or 51,” shot back the journalist, “He’s just killed his uncle. He’s holding an American hostage.”

The visit come weeks after the execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who until then was one of the most powerful figures.

Fading song, shambolic speech

One day after the TV interview Rodman led an auditorium of North Koreans in singing “Happy Birthday” to their leader.

Rodman is there having taken a team of fellow former National Basketball Association stars to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, to mark the birthday with an exhibition game.

“It started out as surreal, then people joined in and it sort of faded a bit, but it seemed pretty heartfelt from Rodman’s side,” Simon Cockerell, a tour guide who watched the game in Pyongyang, said of Rodman’s birthday singing.

“It was unexpected, and probably unplanned,” he said. “Kim Jong Un appeared to smile, but he didn’t appear to expect it.”

Cockerell, whose company Koryo Tours took a group of tourists to the game, said the audience had stood and cheered Kim for up to six minutes when he appeared with his wife.

“Dennis Rodman gave a charmingly shambolic speech where he thanked Kim Jong Un and his wife for showing up, along with the other players for being brave enough to come with him and join in his ‘engagement effort’.”

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