Rodman begins sightseeing on NKorea trip he hopes opens door

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Rodman begins sightseeing on NKorea trip he hopes opens door
Rodman begins sightseeing on NKorea trip he hopes opens door

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) – Dennis Rodman, the former NBA bad boy who has palled around with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, began sightseeing in Pyongyang on Wednesday during a trip he said he hoped would “open a door” for his former “Celebrity Apprentice” boss – President Donald Trump.

Hours after his arrival the previous day, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that North Korea had released an American student serving a 15-year prison term with hard labor for alleged anti-state acts. A plane carrying Otto Warmbier arrived late Tuesday at an airport in Cincinnati. His parents say he has been in a coma and was medically evacuated.

Tillerson said the State Department secured his release at Trump’s direction, and a spokeswoman was firm in saying Rodman’s trip had nothing to do with Warmbier’s release.

Rodman, one of the few people to know both of the nuclear-armed leaders, sported dark sunglasses and athletic wear as he left his hotel in a black limo Wednesday morning without comment. He is scheduled to meet North Korea’s sports minister before he leaves the country on Saturday.

He was met by North Korean Vice Minister of Sports Son Kwang Ho at the airport, saying then, “I’m just here to see some friends and have a good time.”

It was a relatively low-ley arrival after his four past trips since 2013 generated a lot of publicity – most of it unfavorable – and did little in terms of diplomacy. His current visit has already been roundly criticized by some for its timing, during high tensions between the U.S. and North Korea over its weapons programs and recent missile launches.

“Well, 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 said in Beijing when asked if Trump was aware of the trip.

Rodman said the issue of several Americans detained by North Korea is “not my purpose right now,” in remarks made in Beijing before the release of Warmbier was publicly disclosed.

The University of Virginia student from suburban Cincinnati who publicly confessed to trying to steal a propaganda banner left North Korea on Tuesday morning, a foreign ministry official confirmed.

Warmbier’s parents said in a statement to The Associated Press that they had learned only a week ago that their son has been in a coma since March 2016.

In Seoul, South Korea, U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon said “we pray for him and we pray for his family.”

Tillerson said the State Department is continuing to discuss three other detained Americans with North Korea.

In 2014, Rodman arranged a basketball game with other former NBA players and North Koreans and regaled leader Kim with a rendition of “Happy Birthday.” On the same trip, he suggested an American missionary was at fault for his own imprisonment in North Korea, remarks for which he later apologized.

Any visit to North Korea by a high-profile American is a political minefield.

Rodman has been criticized for failing to use his influence on leaders who are otherwise isolated diplomatically from the rest of the world. He has generally brushed off such criticism as unfair because as an athlete and celebrity he shouldn’t be expected to solve difficult political problems.

Americans are regarded as enemies in North Korea because the two countries never signed a peace treaty to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War. Thousands of U.S. troops are based in South Korea, and the Demilitarized Zone between the North and South is one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world.

A statement issued in New York by a Rodman publicist said the former NBA player is in the rare position of being friends with the leaders of both North Korea and the United States. Rodman was a cast member on two seasons of Trump’s TV reality show “Celebrity Apprentice.”

Rodman tweeted that his trip was being sponsored by Potcoin, one of a growing number of cybercurrencies used to buy and sell marijuana in state-regulated markets.

There is an internet urban legend that North Korea is a pothead paradise and maybe even the next Amsterdam of pot tourism. But the claim that marijuana is legal in North Korea is not true – it’s considered a controlled substance in the same category as cocaine and heroin.

Americans have been sentenced to years in North Korean prisons for seemingly minor offenses and likely could not expect leniency if the country’s drug laws were violated.

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Associated Press journalists Mark Schiefelbein in Beijing, Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

Former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman, second from left, walks through the Koryo hotel lobby as he leaves to visit several sports venues Wednesday, June 14, 2017, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Rodman’s current trip is his first since Donald Trump became president. He told reporters in Beijing, as he departed for Pyongyang, that he hopes his trip will “open a door” for Trump. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman, center, arrives at Sunan International Airport on Tuesday, June 13, 2017, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Rodman has arrived in North Korea on his first visit since President Donald Trump took office. (AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon)
Former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman, center, poses with his entourage upon arrival at Sunan International Airport on Tuesday, June 13, 2017, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Rodman has arrived in North Korea on his first visit since President Donald Trump took office.(AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon)
Former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman is greeted by North Korea’s Sports Ministry Vice Minister Son Kwang Ho, right, upon his arrival at Sunan International Airport on Tuesday, June 13, 2017, in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon)
Former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman, center, is greeted by North Korea’s Sports Ministry Vice Minister Son Kwang Ho, right, upon his arrival at Sunan International Airport on Tuesday, June 13, 2017, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Rodman has arrived in North Korea on his first visit since President Donald Trump took office. (AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon)
Former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman, second from left, walks through the Koryo hotel lobby as he leaves to visit several sports venues on Wednesday, June 14, 2017, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Rodman’s current trip is his first since Donald Trump became president. He told reporters in Beijing, as he departed for Pyongyang, that he hopes his trip will “open a door” for Trump. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
In this undated photo published on Sept. 7, 2013, on the homepage of North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, talks with former NBA player Dennis Rodman during a dinner in North Korea. North Korea is expecting another visit by former NBA bad boy Rodman on Tuesday, June 13, 2017, in what would be his first to the country since President Donald Trump took office. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this photo. (Rodong Sinmun/Korea News Service via AP)
This combination of file photos shows former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman in Pyongyang, North Korea on Dec. 20, 2013, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. North Korea on Tuesday, June 13, 2017, is expecting another visit by Rodman, who has made several trips to the country but has been criticized for insensitive comments and for regaling leader Kim Jong Un with “Happy Birthday” in 2014. It would be his first visit to the country since President Donald Trump took office (AP Photos/David Guttenfelder, Wong Maye-E, Files)
U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon talks to journalists after meeting with Japan’s National Security Council Chief Shotaro Yachi at the prime minister’s office Tuesday, June 13, 2017, in Tokyo. Shannon, a visiting senior U.S. official said former NBA player Dennis Rodman’s trip is as a private citizen. “We are aware of his visit. We wish him well, but we have issued travel warnings to Americans suggested they not travel to North Korea for their own safety,” Shannon told reporters after discussing the North Korea missile threat and other issues with Japanese counterparts. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
FILE – In this Jan. 8, 2014, file photo, former NBA star Dennis Rodman sings Happy Birthday to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, seated above in the stands, before an exhibition basketball game at an indoor stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea’s Foreign Ministry official who spoke to the AP in Pyongyang confirmed Rodman was expected to arrive Tuesday, June 13, 2017, but could not provide details. He’s made several visits to the country, but has been roundly criticized for insensitive comments and for regaling leader Kim Jong Un with “Happy Birthday” in 2014. (AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon, File)
FILE – In this Dec. 20, 2013, file photo, former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman, center, watches from courtside during a practice session for North Korean basketball players in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea’s Foreign Ministry official who spoke to the AP in Pyongyang confirmed Rodman was expected to arrive Tuesday, June 13, 2017, but could not provide details. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, File)
FILE – In this Dec. 19, 2013, file photo, North Koreans look down from a balcony as former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman enters the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea’s Foreign Ministry official who spoke to the AP in Pyongyang confirmed Rodman was expected to arrive Tuesday, June 13, 2017, but could not provide details. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, File)
FILE – In this Jan. 7, 2014, file photo, a bottle of vodka with handmade illustrations of Rodman with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Rodman’s name in Korean sits on the roof of a car outside a Pyongyang hotel, North Korea. Rodman came to the North Korean capital with a team of USA basketball stars for an exhibition game on Jan. 8, the birthday of Kim Jong Un. North Korea’s Foreign Ministry official who spoke to the AP in Pyongyang confirmed Rodman was expected to arrive Tuesday, June 13, 2017, but could not provide details. He’s made several visits to the country, but has been roundly criticized for insensitive comments and for regaling Kim with “Happy Birthday” in 2014. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, File)
FILE – In this Jan. 8, 2014, file photo, Dennis Rodman bows to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, seated above in the stands, after singing Happy Birthday to Kim before an exhibition basketball game with U.S. and North Korean players at an indoor stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea’s Foreign Ministry official who spoke to the AP in Pyongyang confirmed Rodman was expected to arrive Tuesday, June 13, 2017, but could not provide details. He’s made several visits to the country, but has been roundly criticized for insensitive comments and for regaling Kim with “Happy Birthday” in 2014. (AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon, File)
FILE – In this Jan. 8, 2014, file photo, Dennis Rodman waves to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, seated above in the stands, after singing Happy Birthday to Kim before an exhibition basketball game with U.S. and North Korean players at an indoor stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea’s Foreign Ministry official who spoke to the AP in Pyongyang confirmed Rodman was expected to arrive Tuesday, June 13, 2017, but could not provide details. He’s made several visits to the country, but has been roundly criticized for insensitive comments and for regaling leader Kim Jong Un with “Happy Birthday” in 2014.(AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon, FILE)
FILE – In this Dec. 20, 2013, file photo, former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman leaves a sports arena after a practice session for North Korean basketball players in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea’s Foreign Ministry official who spoke to the AP in Pyongyang confirmed Rodman was expected to arrive Tuesday, June 13, 2017, but could not provide details. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, File)
In this Jan. 8, 2014 photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, talks with former NBA player Dennis Rodman, right, as they watch an exhibition basketball game at an indoor stadium in Pyongyang. North Korea is expecting another visit by former NBA bad boy Rodman on Tuesday, June 13, 2017, in what would be his first to the country since President Donald Trump took office. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this photo. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)
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