The Worm has returned. On Tuesday, former NBA great Dennis Rodman flew back to North Korea during a time of heightened tensions with Washington, after the rogue state's 16 missile tests so far this year, and its arrest of two more U.S. citizens, bringing the total number of Americans held by the regime to four.
It's at least the fourth trip to North Korea for Rodman, who was previously hosted in 2013 and 2014 by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, a known basketball fanatic. The 56-year-old New Jersey native,who helped win two NBA championships for the Detroit Pistons and three for the Chicago Bulls, is one of a tiny number of Americans to have met Kim and calls the dictator a “friend for life.” However, his visits have been controversial given the regime’s record of human-rights abuses that amount to “crimes against humanity,” according to a 2014 U.N. report, and its frequent threats to launch nuclear strikes against the U.S and her allies.
Speaking to CNN at Beijing Airport before boarding his flight to Pyongyang, Rodman said he was "pretty sure" U.S. President Donald Trump was happy "that I'm over here trying to accomplish something that we both need."
He said that he was trying to "open doors," though when asked about possibly helping American detainees, said, “that’s not my purpose right now.”
Accompanying Rodman was Columbia University geneticist Professor Joe Terwilliger, who joined Rodman's 2014 visit to Pyongyang. In July 2013, Terwilliger taught for three weeks at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, founded by Korean-American Kim Chin Kyung, where two American academics were arrested in April and May respectively.
Sources close to Rodman told TIME that the visit would likely last until the weekend. Senior U.S. diplomats in South Korea confessed to having no knowledge of the trip, while the State Department said it was aware but stressed the visit was unofficial.
“Dennis is not a diplomat or scholar of international affairs or security or diplomacy, so people should not have that expectation of him,” says Daniel Pinkston, an East Asia expert at Troy University in South Korea, who advised Rodman personally during his previous trips to North Korea. “But he’s very kindhearted and generous and means well. He only wants what's best.”
Rodman’s assertion that Trump would approve of a new round of "basketball diplomacy" seems at odds with the extra pressure Washington has piled on the regime following its escalating nuclear and missile tests. In April, Trump dispatched the USS Carl Vinson strike group to the Korean peninsular and subsequently warned of a possible “major, major conflict” with North Korea. The U.K. Financial Times reported that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter had been specifically asked not to get involved in negotiations.
But it's possible that Trump is changing tactics. The president has described Kim as a “maniac” and “madman,” while incongruously praising him for holding onto power despite his young age, calling him a "pretty smart cookie" and saying he would be “honored” to meet him. Before assuming office, Trump had praised Rodman’s trips to North Korea and during his campaign talked of sitting down with Kim “for a hamburger.”
U.S. officials in Seoul have previously told TIME that the release of U.S. citizens Otto Warmbier, Kim Dong-chul, Kim Sang-duk and Kim Hak-Song, who are being held on various charges including espionage and “committing hostile acts,” could be used as as olive branch.
Stephan Haggard, professor of Korea-Pacific Studies at UCLA San Diego, says that Rodman certainly didn’t act in any official capacity under former President Barack Obama. “But with this administration, who knows?” he adds. “You can’t rule it out.” Certainly, Rodman is on personal terms with Trump, having twice appeared on The Celebrity Apprentice, and in March said he was willing to negotiate on behalf of Trump with Kim.
Rodman’s visit also changes to tenor of bilateral relations from the increasingly belligerent to somewhat more cordial. In that respect, it releases diplomatic pressure on the Kim regime at a time when Beijing has been squeezing the North Korean economy, which relies on China for around 90% of its trade. South Korea's new President Moon Jae-in was also elected on promises of measured reengagement with the Kim regime.
There are likely also personal reasons for Kim wanting Rodman to return, given how utterly isolated the 33-year-old leader appears at the summit of the third generation Stalinist dynasty, having already ordered the execution of his powerful uncle, Jang Song Thaek, and also likely his estranged half-brother, Kim Jong Nam. One source with inside knowledge of Rodman's previous trips told TIME the visits consisted of "one long party of boozing."
“In a dictatorship no one can trust anyone, even with the extraordinary powers that Kim has,” says Pinkston. “He can enjoy a luxurious life and everything else, which Kim does, but in terms of personal relationships and trust that’s almost impossible to obtain. And Dennis is very kind-hearted and genuine.“
Attributes that perhaps could be turned to help his countrymen in need.