Flamboyant former basketball star Dennis Rodman has arrived in North Korea for a five-day visit, his second this year, but said he had no plans to negotiate the release of a jailed American missionary.
There had been speculation that Rodman, who met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in March, would secure the release of Kenneth Bae, who was jailed for 15 years for trying to overthrow the government.
“I’m not going to North Korea to discuss freeing Kenneth Bae,” Rodman said yesterday before he left Beijing for Pyongyang. “I’m just going there on another basketball diplomacy tour.”
Kim is a basketball fan and appeared to get on well with Rodman during the earlier visit, with the two of them pictured laughing, eating and drinking together and watching an all-star basketball match.
Rodman’s latest trip is being sponsored by Irish bookmaker Paddy Power. His arrival was announced on North Korean news agency KCNA.
Wearing his trademark dark sunglasses, the 6ft 7in Rodman pushed through a throng of journalists at Beijing’s international airport, a common waystation for travellers to North Korea.
“I’m just trying to go over there to meet my friend Kim, the Marshal,” Rodman said. “Try to start a basketball league. I have not been promised anything. I am just going there as a friendly gesture.”
Rodman once asked on his Twitter account for Kim to “do me a solid” and release Bae. Kim has the power to grant special pardons under the North’s constitution. North Korea cancelled a visit by Robert King, the US special envoy on North Korean human rights issues, to Pyongyang last week on what the US State Department said was a “humanitarian mission” to negotiate the release of Bae.
Mr King’s trip was initially seen as a signal that relations between Washington and Pyongyang might start to improve. North Korea said it withdrew the invitation because of annual military drills last week by the US and South Korea.
Rodman drew fire for his earlier trip to Pyongyang at a time when North Korea was threatening the US, South Korea and Japan with missile strikes.
He called Kim, 30, who rules unchallenged in a country where there are an estimated 150,000-200,000 prisoners in work camps, “an awesome kid”.
Bae, a Korean American who had been working as a Christian missionary in China and North Korea, was arrested in the north-east port city of Rason late last year. The North Korean supreme court said it sentenced him to 15 years of hard labour for plotting to overthrow the state. It said he had secretly brought “propaganda materials”, including a National Geographic documentary on life in North Korea, into the isolated country.
Bae, who had trained with missionary organisation Youth With a Mission, ran a tour group called Nation Tours in China that specialised in trips to North Korea. In a video of a 2009 sermon to a Korean-American church in St Louis, Bae said he planned to bring fellow Christians into Rason.
North Korea says it permits religious freedom, but religious expression is tightly controlled in a state that demands total loyalty to the Kim dynasty, which has ruled for three generations.
Bae’s family has acknowledged his deeply held religious beliefs, but has suggested that his sympathy for North Korean orphans may have been behind his arrest.