By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A group of United Nations sanctions experts has been investigating former basketball star Dennis Rodman because of gifts he brought to North Korea during his visits to the reclusive state, according to an excerpt from the group's latest report.
While the U.N. Panel of Experts, an independent body that monitors compliance with the United Nations' North Korea sanctions regime, did not explicitly accuse Rodman of violating the U.N. ban on luxury goods, it suggested his actions may have represented a breach of international restrictions on Pyongyang.
"The panel also investigated allegations that Dennis Rodman and his party may have taken luxury items as gifts when he visited Pyongyang in September and December 2013 and January 2014," the experts' unpublished report says.
On his January trip, Rodman was accompanied by a contingent of other former National Basketball Association players for an exhibition game in Pyongyang. He sang "Happy Birthday," to Kim Jong Un at a celebration marking what was believed to be his 31st birthday.
"Media reports ... corroborated by the panel indicate that among items taken by Dennis Rodman and his party during their visits were sporting goods from various countries, five bottles of vodka (United States) taken by Rodman and one bottle of whiskey (Ireland)," the report says.
In an excerpt seen by Reuters, the report also refers to other gifts, including "two whiskey glasses and one whiskey decanter (Ireland), and a Mulberry handbag (United Kingdom) taken by Paddy Power, a company based in Ireland."
The former basketball star's trips had previously been financed by Irish bookmaker Paddy Power, although it has since withdrawn its backing. Rodman used his first visit in 2013 to promote his own vodka brand.
"The panel considers that this (the Rodman case) illustrates the importance of informing individuals and companies of their obligations under the (Security Council sanctions) resolutions," the report said. "It is continuing in its enquiries."
There is a U.N. ban on the export of luxury goods to North Korea under sanctions imposed by the Security Council in response to Pyongyang's 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests and several missile launches.
The athlete's most recent visit to Pyongyang became controversial after an agitated, drunken Rodman gave an interview to CNN from North Korea in which he suggested that Kenneth Bae, an American missionary imprisoned in North Korea, was responsible for his own imprisonment.
Rodman checked himself into a substance abuse rehabilitation center shortly after returning from North Korea in January.
Last year, the Panel of Experts said North Korea continued to violate the U.N. ban on luxury goods, which is intended to punish the country's ruling elite. The panel cited suspected violations of the ban involving alcohol, tobacco, electronic items, automobiles and cosmetics.
The Panel of Experts has also looked at the case of a North Korean cargo ship, the Chong Chon Gang, detained near the Panama Canal for holding Cuban weapons. The ship was seized in July 2013 for smuggling Soviet-era arms, including two MiG-21 aircraft, hidden under 10,000 tons of sugar.
Several Security Council diplomats told Reuters on condition of anonymity that in the Chong Chon Gang case, the experts determined that North Korea had used a network of firms based abroad, including in China - its standard method of trying to avoid detection while violating the U.N. arms embargo.
(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau, editing by G Crosse)