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BEIJING – The Worm is back in play, as one of the world's most unlikely diplomats. Former basketball star Dennis Rodman, who recently launched his own Bad Boy vodka brand, flew Tuesday to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, where he says he will once more hang out with his friend Kim Jong Un, the reclusive state's young dictator.
Rodman shocked the world when he met and praised Kim during a visit to North Korea in February with the Harlem Globetrotters. The flamboyant and often controversial star became the first American to meet the leader, a 29 year-old basketball fan whose father and grandfather ruled North Korea before him.
At Beijing airport Tuesday, Rodman said he will "try to bridge a gap with Americans and North Korea," and expects to meet Kim for dinner Tuesday or Wednesday. But he will not raise the case of jailed U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae, who is currently serving a 15-year hard labor sentence for committing "hostile acts" towards North Korea. "I'm not a diplomat," he said repeatedly Tuesday.
On Friday, North Korean authorities forced the last-minute cancellation of a trip to Pyongyang by the U.S. Special Envoy for Human Rights Ambassador Robert King, who had hoped to secure Bae's release on humanitarian grounds. Bae's family is concerned about his health.
In several previous cases, the USA has sent high-profile envoys to secure the release of U.S. citizens detained in North Korea. In 2009, former President Bill Clinton brought home two U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were serving 12 years hard labor after crossing the border illegally.
Rodman has no official remit from the U.S. government, but is clearly relishing his new-found role and highly unusual access to the North Korean leader. "I'm not there to be a diplomat, I'm going over there to just have a good time with him and his family, that's pretty much it," he said. Rodman said he will "try to bridge a gap with Americans and North Korea, just let people see in America that it's not a bad thing to go to North Korea, and have a good time and meet new people."
Kim and his wife hosted Rodman and his entourage to a lavish, liquor-fuelled dinner in February, after they watched an exhibition game of basketball together. Rodman expects the liquor to flow again on this trip, but said he was not bringing in any of his Bad Boy brand vodka, launched in July, as gifts for Kim.
"There should be a lot of Bad Boy vodka there already," he joked. "They love whisky, they love tequila, they love vodka, stuff like that, so hoping we're going over to have a nice dinner, sit and talk about communication and sports," he said.
Rodman flew on Air Koryo, the state airline, on a flight scheduled to land in Pyongyang at 4pm local time Tuesday afternoon. Air Koryo has been called the world's worst airline by Skytrax, a United Kingdom-based consultancy, which gave the airline just one star on its review and ranking website.