Wait, did Dennis Rodman rescue a Tri-State man jailed in North Korea?

Secretary of state says 'no comment'

PYONGYANG, North Korea -- North Korea released a jailed Tri-State man Tuesday -- just hours after it was announced that former NBA player Dennis Rodman was paying a return visit to the country. 

But are the two things connected? That's unclear. 

Rodman has palled around with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the past. Tuesday's visit was his first trip back to the country during Donald Trump's presidency. 

Rodman told reporters before his visit that he was "just trying to open a door" on a mission that he thought his former "Celebrity Apprentice" boss would support.

He said the issue of several Americans currently detained by North Korea is "not my purpose right now."

Otto Warmbier, who grew up in Wyoming, Ohio, was arrested early in 2016 while visiting the country with a tour group. He was sentenced in March 2016 to 15 years of hard labor after being accused of stealing a sign at a hotel in Pyongyang, the capital.

Warmbier was medically evacuated from the country in a coma that began shortly after his trial in March 2016, his parents told reporters in a prepared statement. He is scheduled to arrive at Lunken Airport in Cincinnati at about 10 p.m. Tuesday, flying from an American military base in Sapporo, Japan.

"We learned of (his coma) only one week ago," the family's statement said. "We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime in North Korea. We are so grateful that he will finally be with people who love him."

The Washington Post initially reported a North Korean account of Warmbier's condition that claimed his family was told that Warmbier came down with botulism soon after his hourlong trial and that he never woke up after being given a sleeping pill. The article noted there was no way of knowing yet whether the North Korean version of events was accurate.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement that the State Department secured Warmbier’s release at the direction of President Donald Trump. Tillerson said the State Department continues discussing three other detained Americans with North Korea.

Later, a Washington D.C. reporter asked Tillerson: "Any reaction to the North Korea news that it's because of Rodman's (involvement)? Is that the U.S. solution now, sir?"

Tillerson responded: "Ah, no comment on that right now."

Rodman, one of the few people to know both Trump and Un, sported a black T-shirt advertising a marijuana cybercurrency as he talked to reporters briefly before his flight from Beijing to the North Korean capital.

Asked if he had spoken to Trump about his trip, he said, "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 has received the red-carpet treatment on four past trips since 2013, which have accomplished little in terms of diplomacy and served mainly to create publicity for the former athlete. He has been roundly criticized for visiting during a time of high tensions between the U.S. and North Korea over its weapons programs.

His entourage includes Joseph Terwilliger, a professor who has accompanied Rodman on previous trips to North Korea.

In Tokyo, a visiting senior U.S. official said Rodman is making the trip 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," U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon told reporters after discussing the North Korean missile threat and other issues with Japanese counterparts.

Political science professor Laura Neack of Miami University said she suspected Rodman's visit was timed as "cover for (Kim Jong Un) getting rid of one of his bargaining chips."

Warmbier's release is a good public relations story for the Trump administration during a time of political problems, Neack said.

"What does North Korea get out of this? That’s what I asked because both sides, both governments are very transactional," she said. "'I give you something, you give me something back' and it’s always just about the transaction, the release of this very ill student ,and that’s a good thing. But we don’t know what North Korea gets. They didn’t do this just for goodwill. If they were doing it for goodwill, they would have done this last year when he allegedly fell ill."

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 that an American missionary was at fault for his own imprisonment in North Korea, remarks for which he later apologized.

A North Korean foreign ministry official said Rodman would stay until Saturday. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the ministry had not issued a formal statement.

Any visit to North Korea by a high-profile American is a political minefield, and Rodman has been criticized for failing to use his influence on leaders who are otherwise isolated diplomatically from the rest of the world.

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 "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.

North Korea has been hailed by marijuana news outlets and British tabloids as 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. The penal code lists it as a controlled substance in the same category as cocaine and heroin.

Americans have been sentenced to years in North Korean prisons for such seemingly minor offenses as stealing a political banner and likely could not expect leniency if the country's drug laws were violated.

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