Franklin Graham has visited North Korea five times and the humanitarian organization he runs, Samaritan's Purse, has operated in the country for over 20 years. But Graham told U.S. News that he never expected flamboyant former NBA star Dennis Rodman's "very positive" visit to the country.
"I'm surprised, I'm shocked," Graham said in a phone interview. "I'm thrilled that the North Koreans accepted him so warmly."
After returning from a short visit to the closed totalitarian state, where he became the first American to publicly meet with young leader Kim Jong Un, Rodman delivered a message to President Barack Obama during a Sunday appearance on ABC's This Week.
"He wants Obama to do one thing: Call him. He said, 'If you can, Dennis, I don't want [to] do war'," Rodman said. "He loves basketball. And I said the same thing, I said, 'Obama loves basketball.' Let's start there."
Graham, an influential Christian minister, heavyweight in the American conservative political movement, and son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, said he agrees with Rodman.
"If he doesn't do it, I believe it would be a mistake," Graham said. "I think it would be very wise to pick up the phone and call him and to begin a dialog."
Graham told U.S. News that he first learned of the Rodman trip last week while having lunch with the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, with whom he was discussing a proposal to build an "international" church catering to foreigners in Pyongyang.
"I said, 'Dennis Rodman?'" Graham recalled. "He said, 'Yes, I researched him very carefully.'"
Graham says he was informed by the ambassador Monday that Kim Jong Un had approved plans for the proposed church. Significant details—including location and selection of a pastor—remain undetermined, but Graham is dispatching a team to North Korea sometime in the next several weeks to work on the project.
As president of Samaritan's Purse, Graham presides over a 2013 budget that totals $422 million. He told U.S. News he recently met with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss strict U.S. sanctions and his fears that they may hinder his organization's humanitarian work and the church's construction.
"Dennis Rodman was right when he said he's just a kid," said Graham of the 28-year-old North Korean leader. "This young man did not start North Korea's nuclear program, that was started by his father and grandfather. He did not start the concentration camps, those were started by his father and grandfather."
Basketball could be key to wooing North Korea, Graham said, drawing parallels to the so-called "ping-pong diplomacy" of the 1970s that improved the sour relationship between the U.S. and the People's Republic of China.
Graham mused about the possibility of Obama sending an NBA team to North Korea or inviting Kim to attend a game in the United States. "It would be huge," he said. "Obama could put his arm around him and give him some advice, then maybe Kim Jong Un would listen."
"Here is the grandson [of North Korea's first post-independence leader Kim Il Sung], who loves American basketball, who's asking for the president to give him a call," said Graham. "It's a golden opportunity. What could go wrong with a phone call?"
In 2011, after the death of Kim Jong Un's father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, Graham offered his "condolences" to the North Korean people and called for rapprochement with his son in a statement published by Fox News.
Graham said Wednesday that the need for a diplomatic breakthrough is greater than ever.
"This is the most dangerous little state in the world," he said. "If we don't do something after all these years, I think God will hold us accountable. We have an opportunity now and I think we should take full advantage of it."