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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 252 (March 7, 2013)
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

Kim Jong-un Sends Reconciliatory Gesture to U.S. via Ex NBA Star

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea has been sending the United States -- and the international community -- mixed messages as of late.

   On one hand, by hosting former NBA star Denis Rodman and a United States-based exhibition basketball team in Pyongyang, North Korea's young leader Kim Jong-un seemed to have offered a reconciliatory gesture to the U.S. with the hope of softening relations.

   On the other, this meeting occurred while the North has been issuing a barrage of condemnation and warnings against the ongoing South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises as well as stepping up propaganda against the U.S.-led international move to enforce sanctions against Pyongyang over the launch of a long-range rocket and a third underground nuclear test.

   Rodman visited Pyongyang Feb. 26-28, becoming the first high-profile American to have a formal meeting with the North Korean leader since he seized power in late 2011.

   Kim watched a basketball game with Rodman in Pyongyang on Feb. 28 and dined with him that evening. In enthusiastic coverage on the Kim-Rodman meeting, North Korea's state media carried photos, including one of Kim hugging the six-foot, seven-inch former power forward.

   After watching the game with Rodman, Kim expressed his "expectation" that a sports exchange with the United States could help promote "mutual understanding" between the people of the two nations, the North's state media said on March 1. On his third day in North Korea with New York-based media company VICE, Rodman watched a mixed basketball game with Kim between American players of the Harlem Globetrotters and North Korean players, and later dined with Kim.

   During the dinner, Kim, the Swiss-educated leader believed to be a basketball fan, "expressed his expectation that such sports exchange would be activated, contributing to promoting mutual understanding between the peoples of the two countries," the North's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in a report.

   Kim also "welcomed their visit to the DPRK (North Korea), hoping that through the visit, they would become familiar with the DPRK people, especially with basketball fans," it said.

   The KCNA said Kim, who took over North Korea after the death of his father Kim Jong-il in late 2011, talked with the American delegation "in an amicable atmosphere."

   After the game Rodman thanked Kim, with the KCNA reporting that, "His impressive Pyongyang visit is quite satisfactory, and it is a great privilege for him."

   The KCNA reported on March 1 that Rodman had left Pyongyang wrapping up his three-day visit to the communist state.

   The visit by Rodman and VICE comes at a sensitive time as South Korea and the U.S. are pushing for tougher sanctions to punish North Korea for conducting its third nuclear test on Feb. 12.

   After returning to Washington, Rodman said Kim "wants (U.S. President Barack) Obama to do one thing -- call him," appearing in a television talk show.

   The White House scoffed on March 4 at reports that the North Korean leader hopes for a phone conversation with President Obama.

   "The United States has direct channels of communication with the DPRK (North Korea)," White house Press Secretary Jay Carney said at a press briefing.

   Instead of spending money on celebrity sporting events to entertain his nation's elite, he stressed, the North Korean regime should focus on the well-being of its own people, who suffer from starvation and human rights abuses.

   The White House official said Kim's decisions have been disappointing in light of Obama's calls for peace and cooperation.

   The State Department also urged Pyongyang to stop issuing words that carry "no meaning."

   "They know how to get in touch with us," Patrick Ventrell, the department's acting deputy spokesman, told reporters. "Quite frankly, North Korean words and stunts such as this have no meaning," he said. "What matters is the actions they take, and they need to come in line with their international obligations."

   Washington earlier accused the North Korean leadership of "wining and dining" Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters while its people starve.

   "Clearly, you've got the regime spending money to wine and dine foreign visitors when they should be feeding their own people," Ventrell said at a press briefing on March 1.

   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 anyone who has traveled to North Korea.

   "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."

   Analysts generally agree that the North Korean leader's meeting with Rodman has some political and diplomatic intention.

   The day following its nuclear test, North Korea urged the U.S. in a foreign ministry statement to soften its policy toward it.

   While North Korea is engaging in a "war of propaganda" by issuing harsh threats against the U.S., the North Korean leader sent a message asking for softer relations with Washington through the meeting with the former NBA legend, analysts said. North Korea has threatened to take unspecified steps to retaliate if the Security Council adopts tougher sanctions for the nuclear test.

   Also, North Korea is likely to present an image of openness surrounding Kim Jong-un by displaying Rodman's visit at home and overseas, they said.

   In a related move, a state-run North Korean Web site said on March 6 Rodman's visit to North Korea means more than just sports exchanges.

   "How can the visit to Pyongyang by American guests at a time like this be regarded as a mere sport exchanges," the Web site, Naenara (www.naenara.com.kp), said, noting that North Korea's relations with the U.S. are now at their worst level.

   The Web site said the visit "brought great shock to the world," claiming that the occasion could have contributed to strengthened ties if the two countries were not at odds at present.

   It added that bilateral ties can improve if the U.S. gives up its hostile stance toward the North and argued "the prospect for (better) North Korea-U.S. relations is up to the attitude of the U.S."

  (END)
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