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(LEAD) U.S. gov't criticizes N. Korea for Rodman distraction
By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, March 1 (Yonhap) -- The U.S. government accused the North Korean leadership Friday of "wining and dining" former NBA star Dennis Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters while many of its people are starving.

   "Clearly, you've got the regime spending money to wine and dine foreign visitors when they should be feeding their own people," Patrick Ventrell, acting deputy spokesman for the State Department, said at a press briefing.

   He was answering a question about Washington's view on Rodman's trip this week to Pyongyang with the basketball show team.

   Rodman became the first high-profile American figure to meet the communist nation's leader, Kim Jong-un, believed to be in his 20s, since he seized power in late 2011.

   After leaving North Korea, Rodman called Kim an "awesome kid."

   Ventrell said the U.S. supports any type of sports diplomacy with North Korea but stressed the timing was problematic.

   The U.N. Security Council is in drawn-out discussions on a resolution to punish Pyongyang for its nuclear test earlier this month.

   "This isn't really a time for business as usual with DPRK (North Korea)," he said. " We've got -- we're up at the U.N. seeking some, you know, significant reaction. You've got the North Koreans focused on sort of entertainment and feeding foreigners instead of their own people."

   The official said the government, as always, is willing to listen to what anyone who traveled to North Korea says.

   "But we haven't been in touch with this traveling party at any point along in the process," he said. "They haven't been in touch with us. And so we don't have any plans in that regard."

   Ventrell reiterated that Rodman traveled there as a civilian.

   "He's never been a player in our diplomacy," he added. "This is a private visit by a private American citizen. Mr. Rodman does not represent the United States."

   VICE, the organizer of Rodman's visit, said it was part of a civilian basketball outreach program for North Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (L) talks with former NBA star Dennis Rodman at a baskeball game in Pyongyang.

North Korea actively promotes the personality cult of its leader.

   Its stated-controlled media released photos of Kim and Rodman sitting together at a basketball stadium and hugging each other.

   The two were shown conversing while watching Thursday's friendly game between a North Korean team and members of the Harlem Globetrotters. It ended in a diplomatic 110-110 tie.

   Kim has apparently tried to raise his image as a flexible leader who can embrace American culture.

   Last year, Pyongyang's media distributed photos of Kim attending a show featuring Disney characters. Kim is known to have been educated in Switzerland.

   North Korea has long relied on outside assistance for feeding its 24 million people.