Retired U.S. basketball star Dennis Rodman is heading to North Korea for the second time this year but is refusing to say whether the release of an imprisoned Korean-American will be on his agenda.
Before leaving for Pyongyang Tuesday, Rodman told reporters at the Beijing airport he hopes to meet again with his "friend," North Korea's authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un, during his so-called basketball diplomacy tour.
"I want to try to keep the communication going, as far as like, I just want to go over there to meet my friend Kim, the marshall, and try to, you know, start a new basketball league, stuff like that."
The flamboyant Rodman held a rare face-to-face meeting with Mr. Kim in Pyongyang in February. During the trip, Rodman called the authoritarian leader his "friend for life."
Last week, Rodman told the Huffington Post that he would "definitely" use his latest visit to ask Mr. Kim for the release of ailing Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae, who is serving 15 years of hard labor in the North.
But on Tuesday, Rodman refused to answer questions on Bae, saying he is "not going to talk about that." The 52-year-old said he has not been promised anything on Bae's release, but was simply going to the North as a "friendly gesture."
Rodman's visit comes after North Korea withdrew an invitation for a senior U.S. envoy because of U.S.-South Korean military drills that took place last month.
U.S. Special Envoy on North Korea Human Rights Issues Robert King was due to travel to Pyongyang Friday to request that Bae be freed on humanitarian grounds.
Leonid Petrov, a Korea analyst at the Australian National University, tells VOA that Rodman's visit may be Bae's best hope for a quick release.
"There would at least be some logic in what North Korea is doing. They're trying to channel the diplomacy from high-level State Department (interaction) into people-to-people diplomacy."
Bae is a 44-year-old Christian missionary who was arrested after entering North Korea as a tour operator in November. He was convicted of trying to topple North Korea's government. His family says his health is quickly deteriorating.
North Korea has detained at least six Americans since 2009. All have been allowed to return home before serving their full sentences. Most were released following visits by prominent Americans, including former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.