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N.Korean leadership known to be `fanatical` over NBA

Posted March. 06, 2013 04:43,   


Before seeing former NBA star Dennis Rodman in Pyongyang last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is said to have met him in a 1997 exhibition game of the Chicago Bulls in Paris.

In four-party nuclear talks in Geneva in 1997, the U.S. had offered to allow 7-feet-9 North Korean center Ri Myung Hun to join the NBA in exchange for North Korea giving up nuclear development.

Because of Rodman’s “basketball diplomacy,” Nathan Sayre, a former reporter for the now-defunct magazine Far Eastern Economic Review, wrote about the North Korean leadership’s fanaticism over the world`s top basketball league with in-depth interviews with U.S. officials in charge of North Korea and sports agents.

Speaking Monday to NK News, a U.S.-based news media outlet dedicated to North Korea, Sayre said Ri Gun, the North`s top delegate to the six-party nuclear talks and head of diplomacy with the U.S., is a big NBA fan who has memorized the history and statistics of the league and players` nicknames.

In a conference at George Washington University in Washington in 1991, Ri said at 8 p.m., “Oh my God! It’s time for a Chicago Bulls game. Turn on TNT (Turner Broadcasting TV) quickly,” adding, “Be quiet! I’ve got to see if Scottie Pippen recovered from injury.”

Tony Lonjon, an NBA agent who frequently visited North Korea to help Ri Myung Hun enter the NBA in 1997, said Kim Jong Un’s love for basketball was passed down from his late father Kim Jong Il. Father and son especially loved the Bulls and the Detroit Pistons, who were known as the "bad boys" of the NBA.

Studying in Bern, Switzerland at that time, Kim Jong Un borrowed the limousine of the North Korean Embassy there and went to Paris to see the Bulls game. He had a photo op with the players afterwards.

To improve relations with Washington, Pyongyang launched a project to help center Ri, who would have been the league`s tallest player, to the NBA under the leadership of Kim Jong Il. Because sending the player was hard due to the lack of bilateral ties between the U.S. and North Korea as well as the U.S. trading embargo on the communist country, North Korea set up a sports agency in Canada and let him enter the U.S. via Canada.

Ri Myung Hun was always surrounded by guards because Pyongyang did not want him to defect. A North Korean coach who accompanied the center made a scene when he was sick and was quickly sent back home. Even Canadian police were called because he cried out loud at the entrance of the airplane.

The U.S. later denied the center`s bid to play in the NBA due to the Trading with the Enemy Act. But later Washington proposed that Pyongyang agree on denuclearization in the four-party talks in Geneva in December 1997 in return for his admission to the league. Kim Jong Il was reportedly enraged over this proposition and had the player return home.

The North Korean leadership also invited former superstar Michael Jordan to visit in 2001, and in January this year with former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and last month with Rodman, but Jordan declined all three times.