Flamboyant former basketball star Dennis Rodman will arrive in North Korea for a five-day visit to visit his friend, the communist nation’s leader Kim Jong-un.
But Rodman, 52, has played down speculation he will use the trip to negotiate the release of American Kenneth Bae, who was jailed for 15 years for trying to overthrow the North Korean government.
Kim, the third of his line to rule North Korea, is a basketball fan and appeared to get on well with Rodman on an earlier visit , with the two of them pictured laughing, eating and drinking together and watching an all-star basketball match.
“I’m not going to North Korea to discuss freeing Kenneth Bae,” Rodman told reporters before he left Beijing for Pyongyang. “I’m just going there on another basketball diplomacy tour.”
Wearing his trademark dark sunglasses, the 6ft 7in (2.01m) Rodman pushed through a throng of journalists as he made his way to his plane at Beijing’s international airport, a common departure point 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 over there, something like that.”
North Korea cancelled a visit by Robert King, US special envoy on North Korean human rights issues, to Pyongyang last week on what Washington said was a “humanitarian mission” to negotiate the release of Bae.
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 United States and South Korea.
Rodman drew fire for his earlier trip to Pyongyang at a time when North Korea was threatening the United States, 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 Witha 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 acknowledges total loyalty to the Kim dynasty, that has ruled for three generations.