Rodman was spotted at Beijing International Airport Monday and is expected to land in North Korea Tuesday, two Pyongyang officials told CNN.
It’s not known why Rodman is making the trip to Pyongyang now, when the relationship between North Korea and the U.S. is at a low point. State Department officials told CNN that they were aware of the trip by the Hall of Famer, but said he isn’t going in any official capacity.
Rodman knows President Donald Trump personally — he was a contestant on Trump’s TV reality program “Celebrity Apprentice” — and endorsed him during the campaign. Rodman said at a talk three months ago at West Point that Trump told him he wanted to visit North Korea.
“I was in [Trump’s] office, and he said, ‘I want to go’ to North Korea,” Rodman recalled. Trump has since said publicly that he would be “honored” to meet Kim.
Rodman’s agent, Chris Volo, said at the West Point talk that “Dennis would do anything for President Trump. He would go back there in a second, if it ended up helping our nation,” the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.
A spokesman for a North Korean cultural exchange program told the state-run North Korea News at the time of his West Point talk that if Rodman re-emerges as a “cultural diplomat,” he would most “definitely be welcome back to Pyongyang.”
The flamboyant bad boy of the NBA first struck up a friendship with Kim in 2013, when he helped arrange an exhibition basketball game with the Harlem Globetrotters in North Korea for Kim, who’s a fan of the sport. He returned the following year with a crew of ex-pros to arrange a historic game between the two countries to celebrate Kim’s 30th birthday.
Rodman has visited the country other times to see Kim, whom he has called a “friend for life,” and vacationed with Kim on a yacht. Rodman has been blasted by critics for meeting with Kim and for praising the dictator, despite Kim’s appalling record on human rights and his penchant for killing his enemies. But Trump called Rodman’s trip in 2013 “smart,” and said Rodman was “street-wise,” adding that it might not be a bad idea to pick up the phone when the “world is blowing up around us.”
After Rodman’s 2014 visit, he insinuated that Korean-American Kenneth Bae, who was being held captive at the time in North Korea, was somehow complicit in his imprisonment. But Rodman apologized, and Bae later thanked the basketball star after he was released, saying the attention Rodman had brought to his case was helpful.
“I sang ‘Happy Birthday,’ and people tripped out in America,” Rodman said at the time. “He’s supposed to be this bad guy,” he added, referring to Kim. “Our friendship is about sports. It’s not about politics.’’
Rodman at his West Point talk said “Kim is just a normal guy.” He told me, ‘I would love to come to America to go to a New York Knicks game.’ He actually said that to me,” Rodman recalled. “Obviously, he can’t come here or he would be dead.”
This time, four Americans are being held in North Korea, including academics Kim Sang Duk and Kim Hak-song, who worked at Pyongyang University; University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier; and businessman Kim Dong Chul.
North Korea has launched 16 missile tests so far this year with the aim of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the U.S.