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Amid strains, Rodman stops in North Korea

– Former NBA star Dennis Rodman brought his basketball skills and flamboyant style – tattoos, nose studs and all – to the country with possibly the world’s strictest dress code: North Korea.

Arriving in Pyongyang, the American athlete and showman known as “The Worm” became an unlikely ambassador for sports diplomacy at a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. Or maybe not so unlikely: Young leader Kim Jong Un is said to have been a fan of the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, when Rodman won three championships with the club.

Rodman is joining three members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team and a VICE correspondent for a news show on North Korea that will air on HBO this year, VICE producers told The Associated Press.

“It’s my first time, I think it’s most of these guys’ first time here, so hopefully everything’s going to be OK, and hoping the kids have a good time for the game,” Rodman told reporters after arriving in North Korea on Tuesday.

Rodman and VICE’s producers said the Americans hope to engage in a little “basketball diplomacy” by running a basketball camp for children and playing with North Korea’s top basketball stars.

“Is sending the Harlem Globetrotters and Dennis Rodman to the DPRK strange? In a word, yes,” said Shane Smith, the VICE founder who is host of the upcoming series, referring to North Korea by the initials of its formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “But finding common ground on the basketball court is a beautiful thing.”

The notoriously unpredictable and irrepressible Rodman might seem an odd fit for regimented North Korea, where men’s fashion rarely ventures beyond military khaki and where growing facial hair is forbidden.

Shown a photo of a snarling Rodman, piercings dangling from his lower lip and two massive tattoos emblazoned on his chest, one North Korean in Pyongyang recoiled and said: “He looks like a monster!”

Rodman, now 51, was low-key and soft-spoken in cobalt blue sweatpants and a Polo Ralph Lauren cap. There was a bit of flash: white-rimmed sunglasses and studs in his nose and lower lip.

Showier were three Harlem Globetrotters dressed in fire-engine red. Rookie Moose Weekes flashed the crowd a huge smile as he made his way off the Air Koryo plane.

“We use the basketball as a tool to build cultural ties, build bridges among countries,” said Buckets Blakes, a Globetrotters veteran. “We’re all about happiness and joy and making people smile.”

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