All eyes on U.S. prisoner during Dennis Rodman visit to N. Korea

Despite comments suggesting otherwise, all eyes focusing on whether visit will lead to Bae release
September 3rd, 2013

Eccentric U.S. basketball star Dennis Rodman will arrive in North Korea today for a five day mission where all eyes are on the plight of detained American citizen Kenneth Bae, a prisoner who on Thursday Rodman promised to talk personally to Kim Jong Un to secure his release.

Despite comments suggesting otherwise, all eyes are focusing on whether Rodman’s visit will now lead to the eventual release of the imprisoned American, especially in light of the basketballer’s Thursday pledge to personally raise the issue during his planned meeting with Kim Jong Un.

“I will definitely ask for Kenneth Bae’s release,” Rodman told HuffPost Live of his forthcoming visit.

Rodman’s personal manager A.J. Bright told NK News that the focus of the trip would be sports diplomacy and had “no comment” when asked about the issue of Kenneth Bae being on any agenda, echoing comments made by Rodman Tuesday morning to Reuters news agency.

But the sports diplomacy trip to North Korea follows a mission cancelled Friday to release the prisoner by U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean human rights Ambassador Bob King, an eleventh hour development that left U.S North Korean experts utterly baffled and State Dept. “surprised and disappointed”.

“King was not going there to negotiate the release of Bae. It was 100% agreed he was bringing Bae home–a done deal,” a U.S. government North Korean specialist who spoke with Ambassador King Thursday told NK News. “He was going there to pick up the package.”

Had Ambassador King made his scheduled trip to Pyongyang, he would have been the highest level U.S. official to have visited the isolated nation since the young leader, Kim Jong Un, took power in December 2011.


On Sunday North Korea blamed B-52 training drills as the reason for rescinding the invitation, but U.S. officials who had been working on the rescue mission point out that the “routine” B-52 flights that Pyongyang cited as the reason for canceling King’s trip actually took place prior to North Korea inviting King to come retrieve Kenneth Bae.

This was something the North Korea press reflected themselves on August 29, when retroactively explaining why they disinvited U.S. Special Envoy King:

“At night on August 15 and during the day on August 21…[the U.S.] flew Guam-based B-52H to the sky above Jik Islet in south Korea, two planes each, staging DPRK-targeted nuclear strike drills,” North Korean state media outlet KCNA said, describing the development as an “ unpardonable grave provocation.”

But the incidents, both of which sources say that Pyongyang had been specifically informed of beforehand, actually occurred prior to the U.S. State Dept announcing the rescue mission and Pyongyang’s late Friday dis-invitation to Washington.


Several U.S. government sources and other U.S. sources with extensive histories closely following North Korean affairs told NK News that Pyongyang and the U.S. government had come to a firm agreement to release Kenneth Bae in August. But despite an agreement being made, powerful figures in Pyongyang disagreed on how best to release Bae.

Negotiations to secure the U.S. missionaries release have involved several channels to the North Korean government, and a senior official of Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry told one former government North Korea hand on August 13, “This issue is being managed by another agency, not us.”

The source said the senior North Korean official was “referring to the security agencies, the internal security services, the folks who control Kenneth Bae”, adding that North Korean officials involved in the negotiation with Washington “made clear it was out of control of the foreign ministry and in the hands of the security services.”


Rodman’s interest in going to North Korea is not the release of Kenneth Bae, but ostensibly to promote basketball diplomacy, his new line of “Bad Boy” vodka and the interests of his sponsor, Irish gambling giant Paddy Power PLC.

Rodman reiterated this to Reuters prior to boarding his plane to Pyongyang on Tuesday, saying “I’m not going to North Korea to discuss freeing Kenneth Bae…I’m just going there on another basketball diplomacy tour.”

But on five separate times Rodman said Thursday that he would bring up Bae on his forthcoming visit, as well as making similar remarks to TMZ, Sports Illustrated, and on his personal Twitter in the months before.

“If the Marshal says, ‘Dennis, you know, do you want me to let him loose?’ and then if I actually got him loose – and I’m just saying this out the blue – I’d be the most powerful guy in the world,” declared Rodman on Thursday.

One U.S.-Korea specialist told NK News, “Letting him go to Dennis Rodman would be in their interest. North Korea has made their point about Kenneth Bae. It was a done deal with Washington to release Bae.

“[Bae’s] death in their custody would not be in their interest,” the source added, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Bae is reportedly very sick and was transferred from a prison labour camp to a hospital in Pyongyang in early August.


The Ministry of Physical Culture and Sports, which was created in November 2012, hosted Rodman’s high profile February visit, and is run by the most powerful members of North Korea’s core elite.

And it was in November that Bae was arrested by officials of the Ministry of People’s Security, the most powerful internal security agency in North Korea, and known to be personally supervised by Kim Jong Un.

The current Minister of People’s Security and former national basketball player, Choe Pu Il, serves as Vice Chairman of the Ministry of Physical Culture and Sports KWP Committee, and according to North Korea leadership expert Michael Madden, routinely interacted with Kim Jong Un during his youth.

He has risen rapidly in power since Kim Jong Un came to power, appointed to all the most powerful bodies in the country, including the National Defence Commission and the political bureau of the ruling Korean Workers Party in April, and given a special promotion to four star general in July.

In November of 2012, Choe  was made Vice Chairman of the newly created State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission, a body created by the young dictator which has taken on powerful role in the last year. It is headed by Jang Song Taek, Kim Jong Un’s uncle, who some consider the real power behind the throne.


The release of an American prisoner to a high profile American who is a private citizen would be consistent with previous efforts to gain freedom for at least six Americans imprisoned by one of the world’s most repressive governments.

Mr. Bae, 45, was arrested by officers of the Ministry of People’s Security in November, 2012 for acting secretly as a missionary proselytizing Christianity in Rason in northeast North Korea, using a tour group business as a covert front for his religious activities.

On April 30, he was convicted of committing “hostile acts” and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

North Korea has previously detained at least five Americans since 2009 on criminal charges and used them to create high level, high profile visits by prominent Americans to obtain their release, including former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and former U.S. Ambassador to the UN and governor Bill Richardson.

The current U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights whose trip was aborted just days ago, Robert King, made a similar trip in 2011 to free detained American citizen Eddie Jun. Like Bae, Jun was a Korean-American Christian missionary from the U.S. West coast.

Picture: HuffPost Live

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About the Author

Nate Thayer

Nate Thayer is an award winning investigative journalist with 25 years of experience in Asia, specializing in conflict, intelligence, security, transnational crime. He has a noted expertise on Cambodia and a current focus on North Korea.