Washington - Former NBA star Dennis Rodman does not represent the United States government, a US official insisted on Tuesday, as he prepares to return this week to Pyongyang only days after the execution of a former North Korean official.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf stressed that Washington was focused on working with allies to rein in North Korea's nuclear programme.
Eccentric former Chicago Bulls star Rodman is making his third trip this year to North Korea from Thursday to train its basketball team, sponsors revealed last week.
He is organising a friendship exhibition game between North Korea and a team of mainly ex-NBA players on January 8, to mark the birthday of reclusive leader Kim Jong-un. The ex-NBA team has not yet been unveiled.
Sponsors Paddy Power said the December 19-23 training sessions and match had not been affected by the turbulent political events in North Korea, where Kim's uncle and former mentor Jang Song-thaek was recently executed in a surprise move.
Harf said the State Department had not been in touch with Rodman about the upcoming trip, and recalled that there was a travel warning in place advising American citizens against visiting the reclusive nation.
“Dennis Rodman is not a representative of the US government in his trip to North Korea,” she insisted.
And she stressed that “we need to focus on what's really important here when it comes to North Korea, the horrible economic situation it's put its people under, not whether or not, you know, a former NBA star is going there to play basketball”.
“The focus really should be on the brutality of the North Korean regime he's going to meet with.”
The tattooed Rodman has developed an extraordinary relationship with Kim since making his first trip to North Korea in March, when he declared the young ruler a “friend for life”.
He is one of the few Westerners to have met with Kim, who took over following the death of his father former supremo Kim Jong-il.
On Tuesday, massed ranks of military and party leaders pledged complete loyalty to Kim Jung-un on the second anniversary of his father's death.