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North Korea sets election date during Rodman's basketball birthday visit

North Korea's state news agency has announced that parliamentary elections will be held on March 9. The date for the one-party ballot was named as basketball star Dennis Rodman visited his "friend for life" Kim Jong Un.

The North's official KCNA news agency reported on Wednesday that the Supreme People's Assembly had decided on the March 9 election date.

At the last parliamentary poll, in 2009, only one approved candidate stood for each of the almost 700 districts. Official results put voter turnout at 99.98 percent in that poll, with 100 percent in favor of the approved candidate in each district. Parliament usually convenes twice a year, rubber-stamping budgets and personnel changes.

The election will be the first since Kim Jong Un took over leadership of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011.

The reclusive country is undergoing perhaps its most sweeping set of changes since Kim Jong Un took power, most notably after his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, was accused of crimes against the state and executed. In his New Year's address, Kim hailed the removal of "factionalist scum" from within the Communist leadership. In his earlier days in charge, Jang was considered a key advisor for Kim. Analysts to the south in Seoul believe that several lower-level purges of diplomatic staff and foreign functionaries followed Jang's execution.

Dennis Rodman has traveled to North Korea.

Toasting the odd couple

Wednesday was also believed to be Kim Jong Un's 31st birthday, although neither the date nor his age is known for certain. A contingent of former professional basketball players from the US, led by regular North Korean visitor Dennis Rodman, took on a local team on Wednesday in what Rodman described as a "birthday present" for the North Korean leader.

Rodman led a rendition of 'Happy Birthday' before tip-off on Wednesday, with more than 14,000 spectators attending the match.

Although little is known about North Korea's young leader, his love of basketball - identified during his time at a Swiss school near Bern - is well documented; Rodman first visited the DPRK last February and has returned several times since. The former Chicago Bull was once a teammate of Michael Jordan, a figure of reported fascination for Kim, according to schoolmates.

'He gets emotional'

One of the players on the US team, former New York Knick and NBA All Star Charles D. Smith, said prior to the match he regretted that the visit was becoming politicized, not least after Rodman delivered a fiery, expletive-ridden interview on US broadcaster CNN.

"Dennis is a great guy, but how he articulates what goes on - he gets emotional and he says things that he'll apologize for later," Smith said. "What we are doing is positive, but it is getting dwarfed by the other circumstances around it."

Rodman's CNN appearance took a turn towards the surreal when he was asked about US missionary Kenneth Bae, who has been held in North Korean custody since May on charges described only as "anti-state" crimes.

Smith was seated next to Rodman during the interview, at one point putting an arm around his shoulder in an apparent attempt to calm him down.

"If you understand what Kenneth Bae did … Do you understand what he did in this country? Why is he held captive in this country?" Rodman asked the interviewer, declining to elaborate when asked to provide the information in question, instead saying that he had faced death threats over his visits to North Korea.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said he was "not going to dignify that outburst with a response" when asked about the appearance by reporters in Washington. The National Basketball Association (NBA), meanwhile, issued a statement saying it was "not involved" in Rodman's trip and would not take part in so-called "basketball diplomacy" without discussions with the US State Department.

"Although sports in many instances can be helpful in bridging cultural divides, this is not one of them," the NBA said.

msh/ph (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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