US basketball star Dennis Rodman is returning to North Korea for the second time this year for what he says is a friendly visit to his friend, the communist nation’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
He is playing down speculation his trip is aimed at freeing the jailed American missionary Kenneth Bae, saying there’s been “nothing promised”.
According to The Guardian newspapers, the former NBA star spoke briefly to reporters on Tuesday while transiting at Beijing’s airport on his way to Pyongyang.
“I’m going to North Korea to meet my friend Kim,” he said. “It’s a friendly gesture.”
“I just want to meet my friend Kim, the marshal, and start a basketball league over there,” Rodman said. “I have not been promised anything. I am just going there as a friendly gesture.”
Early he told the Reuters news agency: “I’m just going there on another basketball diplomacy tour.”
Rodman, who once dated Madonna, first met Kim, a basketball fan, during a visit in February to promote the sport and make a film.
Later, he famously asked in a tweet for Kim to “do me a solid and cut Kenneth Bae loose”.
US officials frowned on the trip for giving Kim a propaganda boost but Rodman suggested “basketball diplomacy” could warm relations.
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, wearing his trademark dark sunglasses, pushed through a throng of journalists as he made his way to his plane at Beijing’s international airport, a common waystation for travelers to North Korea.
North Korea cancelled a visit by Robert King, US special envoy on North Korean human rights issues, to Pyongyang last week on what the state department in Washington said was a “humanitarian mission” to negotiate the release of Bae.
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 in 2012.
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 in “propaganda materials”, including a National Geographic documentary on life in North Korea.