Former NBA star Dennis Rodman returns to North Korea amid rising tensions

BEIJING, June 13 (Reuters) - Former National Basketball Association star Dennis Rodman arrived in North Korea on Tuesday, returning to the increasingly isolated nuclear-armed country where he has previously met leader Kim Jong Un.

Rodman was surrounded by journalists when he arrived at Beijing's airport to catch a flight for the North Korean capital, which he said he was visiting as a private citizen.

"I'm just trying to open the door," Rodman told reporters, wearing sunglasses and a dark shirt and baseball cap with the logo of his trip's sponsor, a crypto-currency provider for the legal marijuana industry.

RELATED: A look back at Dennis Rodman's last visit to North Korea

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (2nd L) watches a basketball game between former U.S. NBA basketball players and North Korean players of the Hwaebul team of the DPRK with Dennis Rodman (R) at Pyongyang Indoor Stadium in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang January 9, 2014. REUTERS/KCNA (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS SPORT BASKETBALL TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA
Former basketball star Dennis Rodman of the U.S. shows pictures he took with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to the media, upon arrival at Beijing Capital International Airport, in this combination picture of frames shot September 7, 2013. Rodman returned on Saturday from his second visit to North Korea this year where he again met the reclusive country's leader Kim Jong-un, but did not come back with jailed American missionary Kenneth Bae. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon (CHINA)
Hakan Sokmensuer, a tourist from Florida in the United States, who travelled to Pyongyang and watched the basketball games between former NBA players and North Korean players, shows a copy of North Korea's Rodong Sinmun newspaper featuring the picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with Dennis Rodman, upon his arrival from North Korea's Pyongyang, at Beijing Capital International Airport January 9, 2014. Rodman's fourth trip to North Korea has drawn criticism from human rights activists and the family of imprisoned U.S. missionary Kenneth Bae after Rodman appeared to suggest in an interview peppered with obscenities that Bae, rather than the North Korean authorities, was responsible for his incarceration. The headline on the newspaper reads as "Dear Leader Kim Jong Un watched a basketball game between our players and U.S. players". REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS SPORT BASKETBALL TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un talks with Dennis Rodman (L) after they watched a basketball game between former U.S. NBA basketball players and North Korean players of the Hwaebul team of the DPRK at Pyongyang Indoor Stadium in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang January 9, 2014. REUTERS/KCNA (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS SPORT BASKETBALL) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA
Bodyguards clear a path for former NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman (C) as journalists surround him upon his arrival from North Korea's Pyongyang at Beijing Capital International Airport January 13, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon (CHINA - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL MEDIA ENTERTAINMENT POLITICS)
Retired U.S. basketball star Dennis Rodman is surrounded by journalists upon his arrival from North Korea's Pyongyang at Beijing Capital International Airport January 13, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon (CHINA - Tags: SOCIETY SPORT BASKETBALL TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY MEDIA)
Former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman (C) takes part in a practice session with North Korean basketball players and other former NBA stars in Pyongyang, in this photo taken January 7, 2014 and released by Kyodo January 9, 2014. Rodman headed for a North Korean ski resort on Thursday after staging a match in Pyongyang for dictator Kim Jong Un's birthday that has drawn the ire of human rights activists and some of his fellow professionals. Picture taken January 7, 2014. Mandatory credit REUTERS/Kyodo (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS SPORT BASKETBALL) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. MANDATORY CREDIT. JAPAN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN JAPAN
Retired U.S. basketball star Dennis Rodman (2nd R) shakes hands with officials upon arriving in North Korea, in this still image taken from video released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang December 19, 2013. Rodman said on Thursday he was not going to North Korea to talk about politics or human rights, despite political tension surrounding the execution of leader Kim Jong Un's uncle. Rodman has visited Pyongyang twice before, spending time dining as a guest of Kim, with whom he says he has a genuine friendship. REUTERS/KCNA for Reuters TV (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS SPORT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY PROFILE) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. NORTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN NORTH KOREA. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA
Retired U.S. NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman (C) poses with his team members after arriving in Pyongyang in this still image taken from video, February 26, 2013. Rodman arrived in North Korea on Tuesday to film a television documentary with representatives of the Harlem Globetrotters celebrity team, North Korean state television reported. REUTERS/KCNA for REUTERS TV (NORTH KOREA - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL POLITICS) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Former basketball star Dennis Rodman (C) arrives at Pyongyang airport, in this photo taken by Kyodo September 3, 2013. Flamboyant former basketball star Rodman arrived in Pyongyang on Tuesday for a five-day visit to North Korea, his second this year, but said he had no plans to negotiate the release of a jailed American missionary. Mandatory Credit. REUTERS/Kyodo (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS SPORT BASKETBALL TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) ATTENTION EDITORS - FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. MANDATORY CREDIT. JAPAN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN JAPAN
Former US basketball player Dennis Rodman (C) shows pictures from his trip to North Korea to members of the media as he arrives at Beijing International Airport on September 7, 2013. Rodman returned to China from Pyongyang on September 7 after a five-day trip when he met Kim Jong-Un, but without jailed American Kenneth Bae. AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)
Former NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman of the US (C) waits to check in for his flight to North Korea after his arrival at Beijing's international airport on January 6, 2014. Rodman, who visited Pyongyang in December, will visit North Korea from January 6 to 10. AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)
Former basketball star Dennis Rodman of the U.S. shows a picture which he took with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as he arrives at Beijing Capital International Airport September 7, 2013. Kim again met Rodman during his second visit to North Korea this year, North Korea's state news agency said on Saturday but made no mention on whether the two discussed the fate of a jailed American missionary. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS SPORT BASKETBALL MEDIA)
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"My purpose is to actually to see if I can keep bringing sports to North Korea, so that's the main thing," said Rodman, who wore his familiar facial piercings and was escorted through customs and immigration by two handlers.

Rodman, 56, arrived in Pyongyang later on Tuesday for a five-day visit, received by North Korean officials at Pyongyang's airport, China's Xinhua news agency reported from the North Korean capital.

Rodman said in a tweet ahead of his trip: "I'm back! Thanks to my sponsor www.potcoin.com," adding that he would "discuss my mission upon my return to the USA."

Tensions have escalated on the Korean peninsula over North Korea's nuclear and missile tests and its vow to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, presenting U.S. President Donald Trump with perhaps his most pressing security worry.

Before Trump became president, Rodman appeared twice on his "Celebrity Apprentice" show and praised the billionaire real estate developer on Twitter during last year's election campaign.

"I am pretty much sure that he is happy with the fact that I am over here trying to accomplish something that we both need," Rodman said, when asked on Tuesday if he had spoken with Trump.

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U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon, speaking with reporters in Tokyo after meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's top national security adviser, said Rodman was traveling as a private citizen.

"We are aware of his visit. We wish him well. But we have issued travel warnings to Americans and suggested they not travel to North Korea for their own safety," he said.

Four Americans are being held in North Korea, including 22-year-old student Otto Warmbier, who was detained in January 2016 and sentenced to 15 years' hard labor for attempting to steal a propaganda banner.

Rodman's North Korea visits over the years have fueled speculation that he could somehow facilitate a diplomatic breakthrough between Pyongyang and Washington. "Hopefully, there will be some positive results. However, we must have realistic expectations, and if the DPRK (North Korea) and U.S. governments wish to communicate or send messages, there are channels to do that," said Daniel Pinkston, a Troy University lecturer and expert on the Koreas, based in Seoul.

SEE ALSO: Trump may be about to fire special counsel overseeing the Russia investigation

The flamboyant Rodman, who has called Kim "an awesome kid," said in an interview with CNN in 2014 that his travels to North Korea would help "open the door" to the isolated nation.

The unpredictable Trump has offered mixed messages to Kim Jong Un, saying he would be "honored" to meet him under the right conditions and once describing the young leader as "a pretty smart cookie."

But Trump has also called Kim a "madman with nuclear weapons" who could not be let on the loose.

Rodman has faced ridicule and criticism for his trips to North Korea, which some U.S. politicians and activists view as serving only as fodder for North Korean propaganda.

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North Korea unveils new weapons at military parade
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North Korea unveils new weapons at military parade
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un applauds during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country's founding father, Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Missiles are driven past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other high ranking officials during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
High ranking military officers cheer as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrives for a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
People react as they march past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
TOPSHOT - Korean People's Army (KPA) tanks are displayed during a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on April 15 saluted as ranks of goose-stepping soldiers followed by tanks and other military hardware paraded in Pyongyang for a show of strength with tensions mounting over his nuclear ambitions. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
Korean People's Army (KPA) soldiers march on Kim Il-Sung squure during a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on April 15 saluted as ranks of goose-stepping soldiers followed by tanks and other military hardware paraded in Pyongyang for a show of strength with tensions mounting over his nuclear ambitions. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves to people attending a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Military vehicles carry missiles with characters reading "Pukkuksong" during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Members of the Korean People's Army (KPA) ride on mobile missile launchers during a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on April 15 saluted as ranks of goose-stepping soldiers followed by tanks and other military hardware paraded in Pyongyang for a show of strength with tensions mounting over his nuclear ambitions. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korean soldiers march and shout slogans during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
An unidentified rocket is displayed during a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on April 15 saluted as ranks of goose-stepping soldiers followed by tanks and other military hardware paraded in Pyongyang for a show of strength with tensions mounting over his nuclear ambitions. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
People carry flags in front of statues of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung (L) and late leader Kim Jong Il during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
North Korean soldiers march and shout slogans during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father, Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A soldier salutes from atop an armoured vehicle as it drives past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
North Korean soldiers march and shout slogans during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
North Korean soldiers attend a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Attendees carry sheets in colours of the national flag of North Korea during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
North Korean soldiers, some of them on horses, march during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Civilian attendees watch North Korean soldiers marching during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
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Rodman's earlier visits to North Korea included a basketball game that he organized, an event chronicled in the documentary film "Big Bang in Pyongyang," which featured Rodman singing "Happy Birthday" to Kim, as well as scenes of inebriated and erratic behavior by the basketball Hall of Famer.

Rodman, nicknamed "The Worm" during his playing career and known for his tattoos, body piercings and multi-colored hair, is considered one of the best defensive players and rebounders in NBA history.

He won five league championships with the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls. (Additional reporting by Eric Beech, David Brunnstrom and Steve Holland in Washington; Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo; and Ju-min Park and Se Young Lee in Seoul; Editing by Tony Munroe and Bill Tarrant)

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