SEOUL (AFP) - Flamboyant former National Basketball Association (NBA) star Dennis Rodman arrived in North Korea on Tuesday (June 13) after saying he wants to “open the door” to the regime and claiming that US President Donald Trump would be pleased with his mission.
Sporting a baseball cap, sunglasses, multiple facial piercings and a black T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of sponsor PotCoin – a cryptocurrency for the legal cannabis industry – Rodman was greeted at Pyongyang airport by North Korean sports vice-minister Son Kwang Ho and journalists.
“I’m just trying to open the door,” the eccentric ex-Chicago Bulls power forward told reporters at Beijing airport before boarding his Air Koryo flight.
Asked whether he had spoken with Trump about his trip, Rodman said: “I’m pretty sure he’s pretty much happy with the fact that I’m over here trying to accomplish something that we both need.”
Rodman’s trip to North Korea is at least his fifth time to the reclusive nation.
Most recently in 2014, he attracted a deluge of criticism after being filmed singing happy birthday to his “friend for life”, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The latest visit comes amid high tensions between Washington and Pyongyang – which is currently holding four Americans – following a series of missile tests by North Korea, which have triggered tightened UN sanctions.
The 56-year-old NBA Hall of Famer, who was heavily criticised for failing to raise the plight of a jailed US missionary on a previous trip, said discussing detained US citizens was “not my purpose right now”.
The player nicknamed “The Worm” is one of the few Westerners to have met Kim, who took over following the death of his father Kim Jong Il in 2011.
It is not clear whether Rodman, who once dated US singer Madonna and was married to US model and actress Carmen Electra, will be meeting Kim Jong Un during the current trip or what its exact purpose is.
He said in Beijing his aim is to try to “bring sports to North Korea”.
Rodman has met Kim on some but not all of his previous trips.
He has previously described his visits – including one in 2013 with the Harlem Globetrotters – as “basketball diplomacy” but has been roundly criticised for failing to raise human rights issues.
A senior Trump administration official told TV broadcaster Fox News Rodman was going to the North “as a private citizen”.
Rodman, who is known as much for his piercings, ever-changing hair colours and off-court antics as his on-court skills, has developed an unlikely relationship with the North Korean leader since making his first trip there in 2013.
The bombastic player – who once wore a wedding dress to promote one of his books – also knows Trump, having appeared as a contestant on his reality television show Celebrity Apprentice.
Trump called Rodman “smart” for his 2013 trip to North Korea, Politico reported at the time. “The world is blowing up around us. Maybe Dennis is a lot better than what we have,” Trump was quoted as saying. “Dennis is not a stupid guy. He’s smart in many ways; he’s very street-wise.”
Analyst Daniel Pinkston, a lecturer at Troy University, said he did not believe that Rodman was going as a back-channel emissary from Trump despite US media speculation. “I have high confidence that’s not the case, but Dennis does know Trump and he does know Kim,” Pinkston said, adding that “it’s not a pre-planned thing, the White House, State Department calling him, saying ‘Take this envelope, say this thing.’”
Kim, who was educated in Switzerland, is reported to be a keen basketball fan and especially of the Chicago Bulls.
Rodman played a key role in winning three NBA titles for them alongside Michael Jordan in the 1990s.
Pinkston said the trip was likely part of an effort by North Korea’s foreign ministry to ease tensions with Washington. “They were looking at ways to do that and this was one of the instruments they were looking at, and the foreign ministry thought it was advisable to formally extend an invitation,” he told AFP.
North Korea has occasionally jailed US citizens on charges ranging from hostile acts to illegal entry, and released them only after visits by high-profile figures including former US President Bill Clinton.
Rodman routinely distances himself from political events in North Korea.