Former NBA star Dennis Rodman Tuesday said he was heading back to Pyongyang to see his “friend”, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, but refused to say if he would come back with an imprisoned US citizen.
Korean-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.”
On a visit six months ago, the flamboyant Rodman declared himself a “friend for life” of the authoritarian leader and embraced him after the pair watched a basketball game together in Pyongyang.
The Swiss-educated Kim is reported to be a huge fan of basketball and the Chicago Bulls, with whom Rodman won three NBA titles alongside Michael Jordan in the 1990s.
Rodman faced ridicule from many US commentators over the first 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 official Korean Central News Agency quoted the former Chicago Bulls star — 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.
Bae, a Korean-American tour operator whose Korean name is Pae Jun-Ho, 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 that he was trying to topple the North Korea regime, and speculation has 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 trip’s sponsors, bookmakers Paddy Power, told AFP that Rodman was “not going to North Korea to discuss freeing Kenneth Bae” but that the trip 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.