As a young man from Alberta, Michael Spavor took an interest in a few pages on North Korea in the back of a Lonely Planet travel guide during a trip to Seoul, South Korea’s capital, in the late nineties, and was hooked.
“It was the most interesting part of the whole book,” he told current affairs magazine MacLean’s in an interview in 2013.
Spavor learned fluent Korean and began a cultural exchange business which took famous visitors from around the world to the isolated northeast Asian country, and he became personal friends with Kim Jong-un, the leader of the hermit state.
The Canadian was detained on Monday by Liaoning state security bureau on suspicions of harming China's national security.
“He is very passionate about North Korean people, and has initiated lots of projects aimed at bridging the society with the outside world,” said an associate of Spavor, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Spavor spent years in non-profit work on the Korean peninsula, with a fascination for grass roots and cultural activities. A friend, who wished to remain unnamed, said he worked with North Korea because he “loved adventure”.
Spavor also helped Chinese companies to invest in North Korea, and was optimistic that business prospects for the reclusive nation would improve as tensions calmed.
“While last year’s political situation could be described as fire and fury, this year’s situation is all about hugs and handshakes,” he said in August. “If some sanctions are dropped, Chinese companies will definitely have the first crack at new investments and trade opportunities.”
Spavor made his first visit to North Korea in 2001 and lived there for six months as a teacher in 2005 for Global Aid Network Canada, a Canadian Christian NGO.
He subsequently worked in South Korea for a non-profit organisation promoting Korean culture, before returning to the North in 2010 where he worked for three years as the director of the Pyongyang Project, a Canadian non-profit promoting peace and dialogue between North Koreans and Westerners, according to Spavor’s personal LinkedIn page.
In 2015, he founded Paektu Cultural Exchange (PCE), a non-profit for organising cultural, business and diplomatic activities that fostered relations between North Korea and other countries. PCE is based in Canada and China, according to the organisation’s website, and it has an office in Dandong.
Spavor attended the military parade in Pyongyang marking the 70th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army in February.
Spavor is best known for organising two trips to Pyongyang for former US basketball star Dennis Rodman and other visitors, where he personally translated for Rodman while meeting Kim. At that time, he became personally acquainted with Kim, and the PCE social media accounts are littered with pictures the two together.
He also used hockey, a national sport in Canada, to promote relations between his native country and North Korea with the 2016 Pyongyang International Friendship Ice Hockey Exhibition, which took Canadian, American and European players to North Korea for matches with local players.
“He embraces the culture and history of Korea, and he finds the unique society creates an interesting dynamic within the North Korean people [that is] very fascinating, which is something he would like to explore. He also wants to help the country out of its difficulties,” said the associate.
“For someone who deals a lot with North Korean projects, he is never known to be keen on politics and never spoke about it openly. He is a charismatic person, but business-wise, there is room for improvement.”
More recently, Spavor frequently travelled between China and North and South Korea, as relations across the peninsula thawed. About the time of his arrest, he was embarking on a trip to Seoul.
“I’ll be in Seoul from Monday the 10th for a few days for new consulting work [and] a few meetings,” he said in a Facebook post.
That trip never took place.