Known for having friends in high places, the Canadian businessman jailed Wednesday for spying in China is a fluent Korean speaker whose relationships in Pyongyang go right to the top.
Michael Spavor is among only a handful of Westerners who met Kim Jong Un after the leader inherited power in North Korea in 2011.
He was instrumental in arranging visits by former NBA star Dennis Rodman to Pyongyang, where the player struck up an unlikely friendship with Kim — and on one occasion sang him “Happy Birthday”.
Spavor has been pictured sitting next to Kim, sharing cigarettes and cocktails, aboard the North Korean leader’s private yacht. Other images show the two grinnings broadly, or shaking hands.
For years Spavor, now in his forties, was based in the Chinese city of Dandong, on the border with North Korea.
He ran the Paektu Cultural Exchange, which described itself as an “international non-governmental organisation that facilitates sport, culture, tourism and business exchanges” involving North Korea. It has not been posted to social media since 2018 — the year Spavor was first held in China — and its website is no longer accessible.
Spavor focused on introducing foreign businesses to North Korea, which is subject to multiple sets of sanctions over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
He told AFP before his detention that he was getting inquiries from investors interested in market research and “face-to-face matchmaking with potential DPRK ministries and future partners” for when sanctions are lifted.
Most successful projects with the North were “facilitated through trusted interlocutors or businesses that have strong and long-term ‘relationships’ with their DPRK partners, which take many years to develop”, he told AFP in 2018.
Hailing from Calgary, Alberta, Spavor first became intrigued by North Korea during a short stay in Seoul in the late 1990s. He also lived in Pyongyang in 2005 while working for a Canadian NGO.
He now speaks fluent Korean — with a distinct northern accent.
After being sentenced to 11 years in prison on Wednesday, Spavor conveyed a brief message to the outside world through embassy officials: “Thank you for all your support. I am in good spirits. I want to get home.”
AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk