NEW: Online betting company Paddy Power ends connection to Rodman
Rodman leaves North Korea after his third trip without meeting leader Kim Jong Un
He helped prepare North Korean basketball players for an upcoming exhibition
Rodman: "I will be coming back in another week"
Flamboyant former NBA star Dennis Rodman left North Korea without meeting the country’s leader Kim Jong Un but praised the local basketball players he trained there.
“They are awesome,” Rodman told CNN while in transit at Beijing Capital International Airport on Monday.
Rodman started his third visit to North Korea last week, spending four days in the isolated nation to assist setting up an exhibition game featuring North Korean players and a dozen NBA veteran players whose identities have not yet been announced. The friendly game is planned for Kim Jong Un’s birthday on January 8.
Rodman’s latest round of “basketball diplomacy” came less than a week after North Korea announced the dramatic purge and execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, North Korea’s No. 2 leader.
Jang’s reported execution has caused confusion and uncertainty about what’s going on in North Korea and worsened its tense relations with South Korea and the United States.
Rodman struck up an unlikely friendship with the young Kim when he traveled to North Korea for the first time in February. That time he brought a team of Harlem Globetrotters for an exhibition game watched by Kim, who is a basketball fan.
Kim later met and dined with the eccentric basketball star, and Rodman told his host he “had a friend for life.”
This time around, however, there was no meeting with Kim.
“No, I’m not worried about it. I’ll see him again,” the 52-year-old Rodman told CNN, adding that his goal was to try out the local players and prepare for the game.
“I will be coming back in another week.”
Rodman has described Kim as a “very good guy” in the past despite international condemnation of the country’s human rights record.
The former Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls star has avoided commenting on the human rights issue, telling the Associated Press he goes to North Korea “just to do a basketball game and have some fun.”
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Rodman’s latest trip was sponsored by Paddy Power, but the online betting company later withdrew its connection to Rodman.
“We reviewed the project and, with the benefit of hindsight, recognized that we got this one wrong and so have decided to remove our name from the event,” Paddy Power said.
“It’s a response to the worldwide scrutiny and condemnation of the North Korean regime in recent weeks, which has resulted in us changing our mind. We will of course be honoring all our contractual commitments to Dennis Rodman and his team.”
Earlier this month, Rory Scott, a Paddy Power spokesman, said that the trip was nonpolitical, but was intended “to prove once again that sport has the power to rise above all issues.”
Rodman was criticized for his first trip during a period of political turmoil when North Korea was threatening missile strikes on the United States, South Korea and Japan.
CNN’s Steve Forrest and Naomi Ng contributed to this report.