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Former basketball star Rodman calls North Korean leader "awesome kid"

Former NBA Chicago Bulls player Dennis Rodman (L) shares a light moment during a news conference inside a mall of Asia Arena in Manila July
Former NBA Chicago Bulls player Dennis Rodman (L) shares a light moment during a news conference inside a mall of Asia Arena in Manila July

BEIJING (Reuters) - Former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman emerged from four days in North Korea on Friday, calling the leader of the reclusive country "an awesome kid".

Rodman, known for his tattoos, body piercings and flamboyance, was in North Korea to film a sports documentary, and watched a basketball game alongside the country's leader, Kim Jong-un.

Kim "is like his grandfather and his father, who are great leaders, he is an awesome kid, very honest and loves his wife so much", Rodman told the Chinese government news agency Xinhua before leaving the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, on Friday.

Kim, 30, is the grandson of Kim Il-sung, who founded North Korea, and the son of Kim Jong-il. Both ruled the country with an iron fist.

Kim has maintained his father's drive to secure nuclear arms for his impoverished country, with North Korea last month conducting its third nuclear test, drawing the condemnation of world powers and the United Nations.

The U.S. State Department has disavowed any connection with Rodman's trip, and its deputy spokesman, Patrick Ventrell, told reporters in Washington on Friday that Kim had his priorities wrong.

"Clearly you've got the regime spending money to wine and dine foreign visitors, when they should be feeding their own people. So, this isn't really a time for business as usual at the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea)," Ventrell said, referring to North Korea's official name.

At Thursday's basketball game, Rodman and Kim laughed and conversed in English, and later had an "amicable" dinner, Xinhua quoted the former Chicago Bulls player as saying. Kim attended secondary school in Switzerland, but his language abilities remain a mystery.

North Korea routinely denounces U.S. "hostility" and no peace treaty was signed after a truce ended the 1950-53 Korean War. But Xinhua said Kim told Rodman over dinner that he hoped further sports exchanges would promote "mutual understanding between peoples of the two countries".

Asked how his visit might help, Rodman told the agency: "About the relationship, no one man can do anything. His country and his people love him. I love him, he is an awesome guy."

Ventrell rejected the notion that Kim's hosting of Rodman represented a meaningful gesture.

"What we're looking at, is for them to come in line with their international obligations, to stop their ballistic missile tests, to stop their nuclear programs," he said. "Absent those kind of fundamental changes, we're not going to read into this sort of theater one way or another."

Before meeting Kim, Rodman appeared to have mixed up the two Koreas, suggesting he might meet South Korean rapper Psy during his trip to the North.

Rodman came to North Korea to shoot footage for a show to air on the U.S. television network HBO, a producer travelling with the group said.

Arriving at Beijing's airport following his trip to North Korea, Rodman brushed past reporters without speaking.

(Reporting by Terril Yue Jones and Paul Eckert in Washington; Editing by Ron Popeski and Paul Simao)

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