Former NBA star Dennis Rodman arrived in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Tuesday — the same day that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that American college student Otto Warmbier was being released by the country just over a year into his 15-year sentence.
Rodman, 56, told CNN he was hoping to do “something that’s pretty positive” as he boarded a plane to North Korea from Beijing.
“My purpose is to go over there and try to see if I can keep bringing sports to North Korea,” the athlete told reporters at the airport.
When asked if he had spoken to President Donald Trump, Rodman responded, “I’m pretty sure he’s happy at the fact that I’m over here trying to accomplish something that we both need.”
CNN correspondent Will Ripley reported that Rodman said on a stopover in Beijing that the imprisoned Americans were not part of his mission, which he described as “sports diplomacy.” Ripley also reported that State Department officials were caught off guard Tuesday morning by news of Rodman’s travels and called it a “strange coincidence” with talks to free Wambier.
Rodman has visited North Korea at least four times and is one of the few Americans to have met current North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.
The basketball player declined to respond to questions about whether he would be meeting Kim during this trip.
According to ABC News, Tillerson’s statement on Warmbier’s release made no mention of Rodman’s trip.
“At the direction of the President, the Department of State has secured the release of Otto Warmbier from North Korea,” Tillerson said in the statement. “Mr. Warmbier is en route to the U.S. where he will be reunited with his family.”
The parents of the 22-year-old student told The Washington Post that he has been medically evacuated from the country in a coma.
“Our son is coming home,” Fred Warmbier told the outlet Tuesday. “At the moment, we’re just treating this like he’s been in an accident. We get to see our son Otto tonight.”
Tillerson did not discuss Warmbier’s medical condition.
The University of Virginia student, who was a native of the Cincinnati, Ohio, area, was sentenced to 15 years of prison and hard labor for stealing a political propaganda poster from his Pyongyang hotel room. He was in North Korea with a tour group and was arrested on Jan. 2, 2016, while trying to board a plane back to the United States.
Reading from a prepared statement, Warmbier told reporters at a February 2016 press event he should never “have allowed myself to be lured by the United States administration to commit a crime in this country.”
He added, “I wish that the United States administration never manipulate people like myself in the future to commit crimes against foreign countries. I entirely beg you, the people and government of the DPRK, for your forgiveness. Please! I made the worst mistake of my life!”
According to CNN, Warmbier’s release leaves three United States citizens currently known to be held in North Korea: accounting professor Kim Sang Duk, businessman Kim Dong Chul and Pyongyang University worker Kim Hak-Song.