By James Pearson and Megha Rajagopalan
SINGAPORE/BEIJING (Reuters) – Flamboyant former basketball star Dennis Rodman arrived in North Korea on Tuesday 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 North Korean government.
“I’m not going to North Korea to discuss freeing Kenneth Bae,” Rodman told Reuters in a telephone interview before he left Beijing for Pyongyang. “I’m just going there on another basketball diplomacy tour.”
Kim, the third of his line to rule North Korea, is a basketball fan and appeared to get on well with Rodman on 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, which did not provide any further details of the trip.
Wearing his trademark dark sunglasses, the 6-foot 7-inch Rodman pushed through a throng of journalists at Beijing’s international airport, a common waystation for travelers 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, U.S. special envoy on North Korean human rights issues, to Pyongyang last week on what the U.S. State Department 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 northeast port city of Rason late last year.
The North Korean supreme court said it sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor 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 organization Youth With a Mission, ran a tour group called Nation Tours in China that specialized 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. North Korea lands at the bottom of most independent surveys of freedom.
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.