Flamboyant ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman Sunday defended his trip to North Korea, saying leader Kim Jong-Un does not seek war but does want one thing -- a call from US President Barack Obama.
Rodman, a colorful Hall of Famer who won NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls and at one time dated Madonna, is now the most high-profile American to have met Kim, with whom he watched a basketball game last week in Pyongyang.
The visit by Rodman and members of the Harlem Globetrotters came at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and North Korea, following Pyongyang's nuclear test last month, which sparked global condemnation.
When asked about Kim's human rights record, Rodman admitted he himself was "not a diplomat" and told ABC television: "I'm not apologizing for him... I don't condone what he does." But he reiterated that Kim was now a "friend."
Rodman said that Kim, who took power in the isolated state after his father Kim Jong-Il died in December 2011, told him: "I don't want to do war."
"He wants Obama to do one thing -- call him," Rodman said on ABC's "This Week" news program.
The former power forward nicknamed "The Worm," who won NBA championships with Michael Jordan's Bulls and the Detroit Pistons, described Kim as "very humble" but also "very strong."
The North Korean leader "loves power. He loves control," Rodman said.
But the basketball player -- sporting dark glasses, his signature nose and lip rings, and a jacket emblazoned with US money -- insisted so-called "basketball diplomacy" could be a way to bridge the divide between Washington and Pyongyang.
"He loves basketball. And I said Obama loves basketball. Let's start there, all right. Start there," Rodman said.
Pictures of Thursday's game between a North Korean side and a US team featuring members of the Globetrotters -- which ended in a diplomatic 110-110 tie -- showed Rodman clapping and laughing next to a clearly delighted Kim.
The pair were also photographed joking together at a post-game reception, where Rodman, sporting a pink neck scarf, appeared to be enjoying a martini.
The Swiss-educated Kim, believed to be in his late 20s, is reported to be a huge fan of basketball and the Bulls. Rodman repeatedly said during the interview with ABC that Kim was 28 years old.
Rodman's access to Kim raised more than a few eyebrows among Pyongyang watchers. It came as the UN Security Council debates how to punish North Korea for carrying out the February 12 nuclear test.
A recent delegation to North Korea that included Google chairman Eric Schmidt and Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, never got to see the young leader.
A spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, Caitlin Hayden, said Washington had "direct channels of communication" with North Korea, even though the two nations do not have formal diplomatic relations.
She emphasized that Pyongyang's actions violated Security Council resolutions.
"We have urged the North Korean leadership to heed President Obama's call to choose the path of peace and come into compliance with its international obligations," Hayden said.
"Instead of spending money on staging sporting events, the North Korean regime should focus on the well-being of its own people who have been starved, imprisoned and denied their human rights."
When asked about North Korea's notorious prison camps, Rodman told ABC: "We do the same thing here."
The onetime NBA star insisted his trip was more than a publicity stunt.
"What I did was history," Rodman said. "I'm going to go back and do one thing, find out more what's really going on."
He ended the interview by saying: "Don't hate me."