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Rodman appears to blame U.S. missionary for North Korean captivity

Former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman (L) arrives at Pyongyang airport in Pyongyang, in this photo released by Kyodo January 6, 2014. REU
Former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman (L) arrives at Pyongyang airport in Pyongyang, in this photo released by Kyodo January 6, 2014. REU

WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) - Dennis Rodman, in a television interview on Tuesday, appeared to blame Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae for his captivity in North Korea, the latest in a series of controversial comments by the former U.S. basketball star.

During an expletive-ridden interview with CNN about his fourth trip to the reclusive state, Rodman seemed to say that Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae, who has been held in North Korea since November 2012 and was convicted last May on charges of crimes against the state, was responsible for his own situation.

"If you understand what Kenneth Bae did. ... Do you understand what he did in this country? Why is he held captive in this country?" Rodman said, declining to respond to questions to clarify what he meant.

Rodman brought a team of fellow former National Basketball Association stars to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, to mark leader Kim Jong Un's birthday, which is believed to fall on Wednesday, though this has never been officially confirmed.

The games come just weeks after the purge and execution of Kim's uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who until then was one of the most powerful figures in North Korea. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has described recent events in North Korea as a "reign of terror."

Asked about Rodman's comments, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters, "I'm not going to dignify that outburst with a response," as he emphasized that the trip was "private travel" that was not endorsed by the U.S. government.

"I'm simply going to say that we remain gravely concerned about Kenneth Bae's health, and continue to urge DPRK authorities to grant his amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds," Carney said.

Bae's sister, Terri Chung, asked on CNN about Rodman's comments, said, "He clearly doesn't know anything about Kenneth, about his case. So we were appalled by that."

"This isn't some game. This is about a person's life - father of three, a son and a brother and a husband," Chung said. "Dennis Rodman, he's not a diplomat. He says so himself and he's definitely not in a position to pass judgment on Kenneth Bae."

Bae, 45, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for state subversion in North Korea. Bae was detained in 2012 as he led a tour group through the northern region of the country. The country's Supreme Court said he used his tourism business to form groups aimed at overthrowing the government.

Following a visit to her son in October, Bae's mother, Myunghee Bae, said her son was "alone and ailing."

A devout Christian, Bae has acknowledged he conducted religious services in North Korea, which has long been hostile to Westerners advocating religious causes.

U.S. Representative Eliot Engel, the leading Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, harshly criticized Rodman and the other Americans for what he called an "ill-advised" trip.

"As North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un continues to starve and oppress his citizens, it is unthinkable that a few fading celebrities would use such an opportunity to reward his brutal regime," he said.

Rodman has faced both ridicule and harsh criticism for his trips to North Korea, which some U.S. politicians and activists view as serving only as fodder for North Korean propaganda.

But he defended his latest visit in the interview, saying it would help "open the door" to the reclusive state and was a "great idea for the world."

"This is not about me. If I can open the door a little bit, just a little bit," Rodman said. "It's all about the game. People love to do one thing -- sports."

He also lamented the criticism his visits have drawn.

"It's amazing how we thrive on negativity. Does anyone know this guy's only 31 years old?" he said of Kim, whom he calls his friend.

"Dennis, he could be 31, he could be 51," said CNN interviewer Chris Cuomo. "He's just killed his uncle. He's holding an American hostage."

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Roberta Rampton and Peter Cooney in Washington and David Stanway in Beijing; additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Steve Orlofsky, Dan Grebler and Leslie Adler)

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