BEIJING (AFP) – Flamboyant former NBA star Dennis Rodman returned to North Korea Tuesday to visit his “friend” leader Kim Jong-Un, playing down speculation he would try to help free a jailed American.
Kenneth Bae, 44, has been held prisoner in the North since November, and Rodman had said last week that he might seek the man’s release.
But speaking to reporters at Beijing airport en route to the North Korean capital, Rodman said “I haven’t been promised anything” on Bae.
“I’m just going to meet my friend Kim the marshal to start a new basketball league going,” Rodman said. “I’m just trying to keep the communication job going.”
The North’s official news agency later announced his arrival in Pyongyang in a one-line statement.
“I am happy to come back here again, to meet my friend,” Rodman was quoted by China’s Xinhua news agency as saying in Pyongyang.
But the agency quoted a North Korean sports ministry source as saying the visit “has nothing to do” with Bae.
The source said the delegation would give a basketball clinic, watch a taekwondo performance and a women’s football match, and travel to the Mount Kumgang resort during its four-day stay.
Xinhua said Rodman had been invited by the North’s sports authority and his entourage included Michael Spavor, a Canadian who runs an education exchange scheme called the Pyongyang Project. Also accompanying him was Joseph Terwilliger, an associate professor of neuroscience at Columbia University in New York.
Terwilliger’s webpage on a Columbia site shows him in evening dress playing the tuba, and says he teaches workshops on “Logical Reasoning in Human Genetics”.
The Swiss-educated Kim, who is around 30, is reported to be a huge fan of basketball and especially of the Chicago Bulls, with whom Rodman won three NBA titles alongside Michael Jordan in the 1990s.
On a previous visit to North Korea six months ago, Rodman declared himself a “friend for life” of the authoritarian leader, and embraced him after the pair watched a basketball game together in Pyongyang.
Rodman faced ridicule from many US commentators over that trip, which came during high tensions over rocket launches and atomic tests by Kim’s isolated regime.
At the time, in an enthusiastic commentary on the Kim-Rodman meeting, the North’s news agency quoted Rodman — nicknamed “The Worm” — as saying the impasse in US-North Korean relations was “regrettable”.
North Korea and the United States have never had diplomatic ties.
A US envoy had been due to travel to North Korea last week to seek Bae’s release, but Pyongyang cancelled the invitation at short notice. The North said joint US-South Korean military drills had “beclouded the atmosphere”.
Bae, a Korean-American tour operator, was arrested in November 2012 as he entered the hardline communist state’s northeastern port city of Rason.
North Korea, which bans religious proselytising, said Bae was a Christian evangelist who brought in “inflammatory” material.
He was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour earlier this year on charges of trying to topple the North Korea regime. Speculation had mounted that Rodman would try to use his budding friendship with Kim to help free the jailed American.
“I’ll be back over there. I’m going to try to get the guy out,” the heavily tattooed Rodman told celebrity news website TMZ in May.
He also appealed for Bae’s release on Twitter, posting: “I’m calling on the Supreme Leader of North Korea or as I call him ‘Kim’, to do me a solid and cut Kenneth Bae loose.”
A spokesman for the current trip’s sponsors, bookmakers Paddy Power, told AFP that Rodman was “not going to North Korea to discuss freeing Kenneth Bae” but that the visit was “another basketball diplomacy tour”.
Seoul-based activist Do Hee-Yoon has told AFP he suspects Bae was arrested because he had taken photographs of emaciated children in North Korea as part of efforts to appeal for more outside aid.
The specialist news site NK News, headquartered in Washington, reported that Bae was using his tour company to bring Christian missionaries into North Korea.