Former Chicago Bulls basketball star Dennis Rodman arrived in North Korea Tuesday and hopes to meet Kim Jong Un, at a time when President Trump is said to be trying to set up a secret channel to North Korea.
Rodman’s trip has sparked speculation that he may be traveling to free the four American citizens being held by North Korea, perhaps as a first and important step toward lessening tensions between Washington and Pyongyang.
Trump, who had Rodman on his “Celebrity Apprentice” show for two seasons, has recently called Kim a “smart cookie” and has said he would be “honored” to meet him. Rodman has met Kim on previous trips to North Korea, serenading him from the basketball court and even holding his baby daughter.
That means Rodman is Trump and Kim’s only mutual acquaintance.
Multiple people involved in unofficial talks with North Korea say that the Trump administration has been making overtures toward the Kim regime, including trying to set up a secret back channel to the North Korean leader using “an associate of Trump’s” rather than the usual lineup of North Korea experts and former officials who talk to Pyongyang’s representatives.
It is not clear if the Rodman trip is part of that effort, and the basketballer known as “The Worm” declined to answer reporters’ questions when he arrived in Pyongyang on his fifth visit to the country.
“I will discuss my mission upon my return to the U.S.A,” he told reporters earlier at Beijing airport, saying he hoped to do something “pretty positive” in North Korea but pouring cold water on the suggestion he might be able to secure the release of the American detainees.
Asked if Trump knew about his trip, Rodman said: “I’m pretty sure he’s happy at the fact I’m over here trying to accomplish something we both need.”
The NBA hall of famer, who is 56, had discussed his trips to North Korea with Trump before the businessman was elected president, according to associates of Rodman.
Rodman had endorsed Trump in 2015, tweeting that Trump “has been a great friend for many years. We don’t need another politician, we need a businessman like Mr. Trump! Trump 2016.” Trump responded: “Thank you @DennisRodman. It’s time to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain! I hope you are doing well!”
Rodman has previously called Kim a “friend for life.”
In in a surreal scene, the basketball player and his agent, Chris Volo, were photographed in Beijing wearing T-shirts bearing the logo for “PotCoin,” which markets itself as “banking for the marijuana industry.” PotCoin tweeted a photo of the pair, with the words “stay tuned.”
Rodman was traveling with Volo and Columbia University geneticist Joe Terwilliger, who has accompanied Rodman on previous trips.
The State Department declined to comment on Rodman’s trip, but administration officials had told other media outlets that the athlete was traveling in a private capacity.
Still, the trip fueled speculation that something more was underway.
“One thing we know is that Trump is transactional,” said one person who works on North Korea, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the discussions. “He’s not a member of the Foreign Service — his focus is on getting things done.”
Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea analyst who advised Rodman after an earlier trip, said that the former basketball player had a “long-standing invitation” to return to North Korea.
SOURCE: Anna Fifield
The Washington Post