PICTURES

Kim Jong Un meets Dennis 'The Worm' Rodman

SEOUL (AFP) - Flamboyant former NBA star Dennis Rodman has become the most high-profile American to meet the new leader of North Korea, vowing eternal friendship with Kim Jong Un at a basketball game in Pyongyang.

At a time of heightened US-North Korean tensions following Pyongyang's recent nuclear test, the man who once dated Madonna brought his charm to bear on the leader of the impoverished, isolated state.

"You have a friend for life," Mr Rodman told Mr Kim in a speech after Thursday's match between a North Korean side and a US team featuring members of the Harlem Globetrotters. The match ended in a diplomatic 110-110 tie.

His comments were recorded in a statement by the New York-based VICE media company, which organised Mr Rodman's trip.

Pictures of the event showed Rodman in dark glasses and a baseball cap clapping and laughing next to a clearly delighted Mr Kim, who was dressed in a blue Mao suit with a lapel pin bearing the likeness of his father Kim Jong Il and grandfather Kim Il Sung.

The pair were later photographed again joking together at a post-game reception, where Mr Rodman, sporting a pink neck scarf and with piercings in his nose and lip, appeared to be enjoying a martini.

The Swiss-educated Mr Kim, believed to be in his late 20s, is reported to be a huge fan of basketball and the Chicago Bulls, with whom Mr Rodman won three NBA titles alongside Mr Michael Jordan in the 1990s.

Mr Rodman's access to Mr Kim, who took over the reins of power in North Korea after Kim Jong Il died in December 2011, raised more than a few eyebrows among Pyongyang watchers.

A recent delegation to North Korea that included Google chairman Eric Schmidt and former US ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson never got to see the young leader.

Mr Rodman's visit came as the UN Security Council is still debating how to punish North Korea for carrying out the February 12 nuclear test that triggered global outrage and condemnation.

A day after Mr Rodman arrived in Pyongyang, a state-run North Korean website had posted an article warning Washington that the US mainland was "well within" the range of its nuclear weapons.

In an enthusiastic commentary on the Kim-Rodman meeting, the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) quoted the former Chicago Bulls' star - nicknamed "The Worm" - as saying the current impasse in US-North Korean relations was "regrettable".

It is not clear why Rodman is "The Worm", although it has been suggested that his mother gave him the nickname because as a young boy, he liked to wriggle when playing pinball.

The KCNA report suggested the decision to watch the game together may have been a spontaneous one.

"Dennis Rodman went up to the auditorium to bow to Kim Jong Un. Warmly welcoming him, Kim Jong Un let him sit next to him," the agency said.

At the reception afterwards, Mr Kim expressed his "pleasure" at the Harlem Globetrotters' visit, and said he hoped such sporting exchanges would improve understanding between Americans and North Koreans.

Mr Rodman has been actively tweeting during the visit, saying North Koreans love basketball and that he was "honoured" to represent the United States.

North Korea and the United States, an ally of South Korea, have never had diplomatic relations.

The US State Department said Washington had nothing to say about Mr Rodman's trip.

"We don't have any details on all aspects of this trip. We weren't in touch with him before... it's not something we've taken a position on," said deputy acting spokesman Patrick Ventrell.

"Private American individuals are welcome to take the actions they see fit. We just don't have a position, this is a private American's travel," he said.

According to the VICE statement, VICE correspondent Ryan Duffy approachedMr Kim during the post-game reception on Thursday and invited him to visit the United States.

"His invitation was met with laughter," the statement said.