NORTH KOREA — NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman is expected to arrive in North Korea Tuesday, according to two officials in that country who spoke to CNN.
CNN spotted Rodman at Beijing International Airport, where he declined to answer questions. Rodman would be arriving in Pyongyang at a time of heightened tension between Washington and Pyongyang, which is currently detaining four Americans.
It’s unclear what the purpose of Rodman’s visit to the secretive country could be, but the eccentric former basketball player — and a former contestant on Donald Trump’s pre-presidency reality TV show “Celebrity Apprentice” — is one of the only Americans to have met current North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.
When asked by CNN journalists in Pyongyang, unnamed North Korean officials confirmed that Rodman is expected to arrive in Pyongyang Tuesday. They gave no further details.
Rodman has visited the country at least four times, with three of the visits taking place between 2013 and 2014. A senior US official said the State Department was aware Rodman was planning to travel to North Korea, but stressed he is not there in any official capacity.
His last visit came in January 2014, when Rodman and a group of other former NBA players took part in an exhibition basketball game. It was supposedly a birthday gift for Kim who’s said to be a big basketball fan.
Rodman was filmed leading a sing-along of “Happy Birthday” to the North Korean leader, a man he calls a friend and a “very good guy,” but is widely seen as a brutal dictator who once lauded the execution of his own uncle.
Rodman has described his series of trips to North Korea as a “basketball diplomacy” project and defended the trip for Kim’s birthday in a CNN interview saying it was a “great idea for the world.”
“I’m sorry for what’s going on in North Korea, the certain situations,” Rodman told CNN after returning from Pyongyang in 2014, but he didn’t specify what exactly those “situations” were and wasn’t contrite about the visit itself.
That trip generated a string of negative headlines and an outburst from Rodman during the CNN interview. He was heavily criticized in the US for not bringing up the case of Kenneth Bae, an American imprisoned on charges of “hostile acts” who spent 735 days in North Korean custody before being released in 2014.
Soviet-style prison camps
Rodman maintained then that he wasn’t a diplomat, and it wasn’t his job to talk about Bae. But once he was released, Bae thanked Rodman for the rant on CNN, claiming it brought attention to his case.
The former basketball star was also accused of ignoring North Korea’s human rights record. Pyongyang has reportedly imprisoned more than 100,000 of its own people in draconian, Soviet-style prison camps and spends millions on its military programs instead of its impoverished population.
This time around, four Americans are being held in North Korea, including Kim Sang Duk and Kim Hak-song, two academics who worked at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology; University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier; and businessman Kim Dong Chul.
A new visit?
Rodman’s expected visit to Pyongyang would be the first under Trump, a man with whom he has a personal relationship.
Before entering politics, Trump praised one of Rodman’s 2013 trips to North Korea in an interview with Fox News. Rodman, who appeared on Trump’s reality TV show in 2009 and again in 2013, went on to endorse Trump’s candidacy in 2015.
But relations between Pyongyang and Washington were considerably less tense in 2013 than they have been in recent months.
North Korea has fired 16 ballistic missiles this year. Experts say each launch gets the country closer to its stated goal of developing a nuclear-armed weapon capable of reaching the United States.
North Korea believes its missile program is the only way to deter Washington from trying to overthrow the Kim regime.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson denied that charge last month, saying the US is only seeking denuclearization, but the Trump White House has publicly abandoned the Obama-era strategy of strategic patience.
Trump weighed in on Twitter last month that North Korea is “looking for trouble” and urged China to help. “If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.” he added.
‘The Worm’ and the dictator
Kim’s passion for basketball was likely inherited from his father, Kim Jong Il, and has been a rare area of common ground for the two nations.
Madeline Albright, the US Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, brought Kim a basketball autographed by Michael Jordan during a visit in 2000.
Nicknamed “The Worm,” Rodman won two championships with the Detroit Pistons and three with the Chicago Bulls. On the court he was known for his ferocious defense and rebounding ability. But he grabbed just as much attention off the court for his piercings, brightly-dyed hair and headline-grabbing antics.
On his first trip to North Korea, Rodman was accompanied by members of the Harlem Globetrotters and a crew from VICE News.
“I come in peace. I love the people of North Korea!” Rodman said on Twitter as he arrived.
The group traveled for a basketball exhibition that pitted the Americans against North Koreans.
Though the game ended in a 110-110 tie, all eyes were on the jarring sight of the rebellious 6-foot-7 ball player sitting next to the the short, clean-cut dictator in a Mao suit. Rodman told Kim he has a “friend for life.”
The purposes of Rodman’s visits to North Korea have never been fully transparent. He’s claimed some were about trying to use basketball to bridge the divide between the two countries. But another was “strictly about the game and for the love of basketball.”