Retired NBA star Dennis Rodman, center, talks to journalists upon arriving… (Ng Han Guan / Associated…)
BEIJING -- Former NBA star Dennis Rodman emerged from his five-day trip to North Korea with a trove of photographs of himself being wined and dined by leader Kim Jong Un, but without imprisoned American Kenneth Bae.
Expectations had been high that Rodman, on his second trip to North Korea this year, would parlay his friendship with the 30-year-old dictator into the release of the jailed U.S. missionary.
"That's not my job to ask about Kenneth Bae. Ask Obama about that. Ask Hillary Clinton," Rodman was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying.
Rodman, at times using expletives, also reaffirmed his friendship with Kim.
"He is my friend for life. I don't care what you guys think about him," said Rodman, who was chomping an unlit cigar and wearing sunglasses.
Bae, a 44-year-old tour guide and evangelist, was arrested upon entering the North Korean city of Rason in November. He was tried for "hostile acts against the state" and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
Rodman, an NBA Hall of Famer who starred for the Chicago Bulls, Kim's favorite team, flew Tuesday from Beijing to Pyongyang, his second trip to see the eccentric North Korean leader, whom he has referred to as a "friend" and "an awesome kid."
Rodman is the only American known to have met Kim since he inherited the North Korean leadership in December 2011. After visiting in February, Rodman vowed to return to Pyongyang and appealed to Kim via Twitter for the North Korean "to do me a solid and cut Kenneth Bae loose."
The Korean Central News Agency announced Friday that Rodman and Kim had "a cordial talk" and watched a basketball game together, and that the communist leader had hosted a dinner for Rodman.
There was no indication in the KCNA report of whether Kim and Rodman discussed the Bae case.
Official photos showed Kim and Rodman laughing over dinner and drinks. Rodman held a cigar, but it appeared that the photograph had been airbrushed to remove a cigar from Kim’s hand.
The report said Kim had invited Rodman to visit again "any time."
The Nelson Report, a private emailed newsletter compiled by global security experts, reported Friday what it called a "hot rumor" that Rodman, upon return to the United States, "may bring with him a special package which goes beyond basketball." It quoted unnamed sources, and might have been purely speculation based on Rodman's unique relationship with Kim.
No other avenue appears to be open for seeking freedom for Bae.
Robert King, the U.S. State Department special envoy for North Korean rights issues, had been expected to visit Pyongyang last week and sound out North Korean officials on the prospects of an early release for Bae, who is in poor health, according to family members in Washington state.
The North Korean Foreign Ministry, however, retracted King's invitation, saying the diplomatic atmosphere had been soured by recent U.S. air maneuvers over South Korea.