Rodman heads for North Korean leader's pet ski resort project

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (centre), his wife Ri Sol Ju (left) and former United States basketball star Dennis Rodman watch a basketball game between former National Basketball Association players and North Korean players at Pyongyang Gymnasium
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (centre), his wife Ri Sol Ju (left) and former United States basketball star Dennis Rodman watch a basketball game between former National Basketball Association players and North Korean players at Pyongyang Gymnasium in Pyongyang, in this photo taken on Jan 8, 2014, and released by the Korean Central News Agency. Rodman headed for a North Korean ski resort on Jan 9 after staging a match in Pyongyang Mr Kim's birthday that has drawn the ire of human rights activists and some of his fellow professionals. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (Reuters) - Retired United States basketball star Dennis Rodman headed for a North Korean ski resort on Thursday after staging a match in Pyongyang for dictator Kim Jong Un's birthday that has drawn the ire of human rights activists and some of his fellow professionals.

A source with direct knowledge of Rodman's itinerary said the 42-year old was on a helicopter to the new multimillion dollar resort, which is one of Mr Kim's showcase projects.

It was not immediately clear if Mr Kim, who is believed to have celebrated his 31st birthday on Wednesday, was with Rodman on the flight. The source declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

On Wednesday, Rodman led a chorus of North Koreans singing "Happy Birthday" to the leader of the isolated and heavily sanctioned country at a basketball match that Mr Kim attended with his young wife.

Rodman's third trip to North Korea has drawn criticism from human rights activists and the family of imprisoned US missionary Kenneth Bae after Rodman appeared to suggest in an interview peppered with obscenities that Bae, rather than the North Korean authorities, was responsible for his incarceration.

Bae's sister Terri Chung said her family was outraged by Rodman's comments and he should use his access to the North Korean leader to advocate on Bae's behalf, rather than "hurl outrageous accusations" at her brother.

"He is playing games with my brother's life," Ms Chung said in a statement.

"He is clearly uninformed about Kenneth's case, and he is certainly not in any position to pass judgment," she added, adding that Bae never had hostile intentions against the state.

The fading basketball star's trips had been financed by Irish bookmaker Paddy Power, although it has now withdrawn its funding and the colourful Rodman used his first visit in 2013 to promote his own vodka brand.

It is not known whether Rodman has the capacity to fund another trip. North Korea rarely pays for this kind of visit, according to experts on the country.

Rodman has described Mr Kim, who has been in power for just over two years, as his "friend".

Mr Kim has presided over two long range rocket launches - banned under United Nations sanctions due to Pyongyang's nuclear weapons and proliferation efforts - a nuclear test and last year threatened to attack South Korea, Japan and the United States.

Last month, his uncle Jang Song Thaek was executed in one of the biggest and most public purges undertaken in North Korea, which has been ruled by the same family for three generations.

While North Koreans suffer from food shortages and malnutrition, according to United Nations assessments, Kim has pushed ahead with massive building projects such as the Masik Ski Resort that Rodman will visit.

South Korean officials estimate it cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and North Korea aims to make US$43.75 million (S$55.6 million) in annual profit from the resort, according to documents prepared for potential foreign investors. It expects up to 5,000 skiers to visit per day.

Pictures released at the resort opening late last year showed just one ancient chair lift for the resort and an assortment of snow equipment that appeared to have been imported despite a United Nations ban on the export of "luxury" goods to the North.

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