Former NBA legend Dennis Rodman will return to North Korea soon with a “promise” to gain the release of jailed American proselytizer Kenneth Bae, as Pyongyang abruptly rescinded an invitation Friday to a senior State Dept. official who, according to U.S. officials, had already hammered out an agreement that would have seen the prisoner return with the most senior U.S. official to visit the isolated nation since Kim Jong Un assumed power in December 2011.
Three days ago, on August 27, the U.S. State Department announced that Special Envoy for Human Rights Ambassador Robert King would travel to North Korea to bring home an American Christian missionary doing hard labor in prison for possessing “propaganda material” and committing “hostile acts.”
What several senior U.S officials involved in the negotiations to release the U.S. prisoner didn’t know, was flamboyant former basketball star Dennis Rodman is scheduled to arrive in Pyongyang soon at the invitation of “my friend” Kim Jong Un.
Now, instead of the United States government, it appears that the tattood, heavily pierced, occasionally cross dressing, former husband of rock musician Carmen Electra, and NBA Hall of Famer ‘bad boy’ Rodman will likely be the point man for the release of Bae.
On Tuesday, the U.S. announced King “will travel to Pyongyang August 30 on a humanitarian mission focused on securing the release of U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae.” A State Department spokesperson said “Ambassador King will request the D.P.R.K. pardon Mr. Bae and grant him special amnesty on humanitarian grounds so that he can be reunited with his family and seek medical treatment.”
But by Friday, as King was en-route to North Korea and on a layover in Japan, Pyongyang cancelled the invitation “abruptly” and “without explanation,” the U.S. State department said. The U.S. State Department, adding they were “surprised and disappointed” and had sought “clarification” from Pyongyang about the eleventh-hour decision, said that “Ambassador King intends to return to Washington from Tokyo the afternoon of August 31.”
The reversal of what several U.S. officials said was a “done deal” left U.S. government officials utterly baffled once again by the twisted road of diplomacy that has long been the norm when dealing with Pyongyang.
“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 and with years of experience negotiating the release of U.S. citizens jailed previously by Pyongyang 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.
But two U.S officials with experience in negotiating the release of prisoners held by North Korea said there is precedence to different diplomatic channels in Pyongyang operating simultaneously. “Sometimes there are two different diplomatic initiatives, with the two channels not talking with each other, and whoever is better connected in Pyongyang wins,” said one U.S. official directly involved in several U.S. prisoner releases. The North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, is known to have had a significant personal affection for Dennis Rodman since his high school days.
Rodman “promised” Thursday that he would raise the issue with Kim Jong Un at a scheduled meeting at the invitation of “my friend” Kim Jong Un, the 29 year old basketball fanatic who leads North Korea and its nuclear weaponized fourth largest standing army in the world.
“I will definitely ask for Kenneth Bae’s release,” Rodman told the Huffington Post Live television show host Marc Lamont Hill on Thursday.
“I will say, ‘Marshal, why is this guy held hostage?’ I could try and soften it up in that way. 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.”
With the U.S. State Dept. telling reporters Wednesday that King would travel to Pyongyang August 30 with a mission to save Bae, the abrupt cancellation of the trip has left senior U.S. government officials genuinely flummoxed by what caused Pyongyang’s change of heart. “Something is going on over there in Pyongyang, but we don’t know what,” one U.S. official said.
“There was no other reason for the visit. There were no other issues to be discussed. No food aid, no nuclear talks. There was no opposition. Something is going on over there. We thought it might have something to do with a high level meeting of the military that took place last Sunday,” another U.S. official added.
Several senior U.S. government officials directly involved in the Bae negotiations with Pyongyang expressed complete confusion as to the reasons for the cancellation of the trip by Ambassador King, and said they had no idea that Rodman was scheduled to soon visit Pyongyang when contacted by NK News.
“King was going to come back with Bae. The exclusive purpose was to pick up Bae. We would not have gone if we did not have that firm agreement. That Rodman is scheduled to visit is the first thing that makes sense as to why the visit was cancelled by Pyongyang,” said one U.S. government official involved in the negotiations.
After raising tensions with a nuclear test in February and threats of war, North Korea has recently begun reaching out to Washington and Seoul for dialogue, and was widely seen as using the incarceration of Mr. Bae as leverage to help achieve that goal, as had been the case with previous Americans held by the North Korean regime.
But the State Department had characterized Mr. King’s planned trip as a “humanitarian mission” focused on winning Mr. Bae’s release and played down any connection between his visit and the North’s long standing demand for official dialogue.
Washington had previously insisted that there would be no serious negotiation with the North until its government showed concrete signs of giving up its program of nuclear weapons development, but the U.S. officials all agreed that no other issues were on the table for discussion for King’s visit.
The eleventh hour cancellation of King’s trip, reminiscent to the embarrassment felt in DC after Pyongyang about-turned on a no-rocket testing deal last April, now opens up the possibility of Kenneth Bae’s release through other means.
24 hours prior to news of Pyongyang’s last-minute cancellation of the King trip, Rodman announced to the NYC based Huffington Post Live that he would soon be going to Pyongyang and would seek the release of Bae from “my friend Kim.”
Rodman has said previously that he had been invited to Pyongyang in August on a personal visit to see his “friend, and you know, hang out.”
On May 11, Rodman said in a spontaneous L.A. sidewalk interview that he had been in communication with Kim Jong Un trying to get Bae released, saying “I have been trying to get the guy out…It will be difficult.”
Adding that he didn’t “do politics,” Rodman then said he would be returning to North Korea alone on a private visit August 1. “We can talk about Kenneth Bae when I get over there.”
“I don’t do politics. (Kim Jong Un) is my friend”, said Rodman, who then took a sharp jab at President Obama. “We got a black president who can’t even talk to them. Obama can’t do s**t. I don’t know why he won’t go talk to him.”
Kenneth Bae was sentenced to 15 years hard labor last April after being arrested in November 2012.
The Korean-American was arrested for carrying “propaganda materials” into North Korea, including a copy of a 2007 National Geographic documentary called Don’t tell my mother I’m in North Korea, North Korean state media reported in May.
Prior to his arrest, Kenneth Bae was working as a Christian missionary in Dandong, Dalian and Yanji, NK News exclusively revealed in May. He had originally been dispatched to China by Youth With a Mission (YWAM), an international missionary organization that specializes in “opening up” countries closed to religion.
Mr. Bae entered the isolated country with a group of visitors to build a covert proselytizing operation in Rason, a trading city in northeast North Korea, using a tour business as a front, according to a videotaped sermon he gave at a St. Louis church in 2011.
On April 30, North Korea’s highest court convicted Mr. Bae of committing “hostile acts” against the country and sent him to a prison camp for 15 years of hard labor. Mr. Bae was moved to a hospital in Pyongyang earlier this month because of deteriorating health.
Kenneth Bae is far from the first American who has been arrested and jailed for activities in contravention of the laws of North Korea, one of the world’s most repressive closed societies.
One of the most high-profile cases was of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who illegally crossed the Sino-North Korean border when attempting to speak to refugees. Their detention resulted in a visit to Pyongyang from former U.S. president Bill Clinton, who eventually secured their release from a sentence of 10 months hard labor.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has visited North Korea three times, securing the release of U.S. prisoner Aijalon Mahli Gomes during his second trip in August 2010.
North Korea’s nuclear test in February sabotaged the remaining good will with Washington and has recently been widely seen as using the incarceration of Mr. Bae as leverage to help improve relations. It had previously detained Americans on criminal charges and used them to gain visits by prominent Americans seeking their release, including former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
A senior Chinese official left Pyongyang on Friday after discussions on restarting dormant multilateral talks on ending their nuclear weapons program. Mr. King’s visit would have been the first step towards cooling heated rhetoric since the North’s nuclear test in February.
The North had said it would only meet with the U.S. “without preconditions” such as putting on the table the issue of nuclear weapons development, while the U.S. says it won’t resume dialogue unless Pyongyang demonstrates a willingness to denuclearize.
Mr. King made a successful trip to Pyongyang in 2011 and gained the release of Korean- American Eddie Jun, like Kenneth Bae also involved in Christian missionary work.
Additional reporting: Chad O’Carroll in London
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