By Jethro Mullen
(CNN) — Eccentric former basketball star Dennis Rodman may not have brought imprisoned American Kenneth Bae back with him from North Korea, but he did emerge with something that set tongues wagging: the purported name of Kim Jong Un’s baby daughter.
Rodman, who calls North Korea’s young ruler his friend, returned this weekend from his second trip to the reclusive, nuclear-armed nation this year.
As he passed through Beijing airport on Saturday, he remained tight-lipped about what went on during his latest visit.
But he appears to have been more candid in an interview Sunday with the Guardian, a British newspaper, in which he described the “relaxing time by the sea” he spent with Kim and his family. And he also let slip the baby’s name.
‘A good dad’
The personal life of Kim and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, is shrouded in secrecy. Even his exact age remains unconfirmed by outsiders. (He is believed to be in his early 30s.)
Speculation sprang up last year that Ri might be pregnant after a photo carried by state media showed her wearing a long coat that could have been hiding a bump. But North Korean authorities kept quiet about the matter.
The flamboyant Rodman, 52, shed more light on the situation in his Guardian interview, including the daughter’s name.
“I held their baby Ju Ae and spoke with Ms. Ri as well,” he told the newspaper.
He described Kim, who sits atop one of the world’s most repressive regimes, as “a good dad.”
The Kim dynasty has ruled North Korea for three generations. Kim Jong Un follows his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather, Kim Il Sung.
The regime has pursued the development of nuclear weapons while millions of its subjects have been left impoverished and malnourished.
It’s a little early to start speculating whether Ju Ae is a likely heir to her father, said Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in South Korea.
Lankov, the author of the recent book “The Real North Korea,” said the question of succession was unlikely to arise for at least another 30 years, assuming Kim Jong Un remains healthy.
“And I don’t believe the North Korean monarchy is going to last another 30 years,” he said. If it does, Kim and Ri are young enough to have several other children in the meantime.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they have five more,” he said.
A big announcement?
Rodman, who is due to hold a news conference in New York on Monday, has so far made no mention on his Twitter account of his bonding time with the Kim family.
But he suggested late Sunday something was afoot.
“Just returned from North Korea. HUGE announcement tomorrow morning in NYC,” he said in a post.
It was unclear what he was specifically referring to. The Guardian reported that he plans to organize a basketball game between American and Korean teams about which further details are expected at a news conference Monday.
American still imprisoned
Rodman had already poured cold water on speculation he might have been trying to secure the release of Bae, the U.S. citizen serving a 15-year sentence of hard labor in North Korea.
“It is not my job to talk about Kenneth Bae,” he told reporters at the Beijing airport on Saturday.
“Ask Obama about that, ask Hillary Clinton about that,” Rodman said. “Ask those —holes.”
Rodman had previously made no secret about his desire to help Bae, who has been transferred to a hospital after his health deteriorated. The retired NBA player once tweeted that he wanted Kim to “do him a solid” by freeing the American prisoner.
But Rodman’s friendship with Kim, an avid basketball fan, doesn’t appear to carry enough weight to get Bae out of jail.
U.S. officials have repeatedly called on North Korean officials to release Bae, who was convicted earlier this year of attempting to bring down the government. Pyongyang last month abruptly withdrew an invitation to a U.S. envoy who was to travel there to try to secure Bae’s release.
Rodman was criticized over his first visit to North Korea, in February, during which he was pictured laughing and eating while watching a basketball game with Kim.
That visit came during a period of escalating tensions in which North Korea threatened missile strikes on the United States and South Korea. The situation has gradually calmed over recent months.
In his comments to the Guardian on Sunday, Rodman, one of the greatest rebounders in NBA history, continued to defend the North’s young leader.
“Kim is a great guy, he loves basketball, and he’s interested in building trust and understanding through sport and cultural exchanges,” he said.
CNN’s K.J. Kwon contributed to this report.
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