Photo / AP File

Michael Spavor, the fiery Canadian who has twice fine-tuned Chicago Bulls legend Dennis Rodman’s visits to Pyongyang, including for a birthday party with frontman Kim Jong Un, was sentenced to 11 years in a Chinese prison last week . The crime for which Spavor was convicted, after being held virtually incommunicado since December 2018, was disclosing state secrets, including photos, to a former Canadian diplomat who has also been jailed for all of this. time.

Spavor’s conviction and conviction marks the disastrous downfall of an entrepreneur with close ties to North Korea. As the founder and operator of the “non-profit” Paektu cultural exchange in Dandong, the bustling Chinese city across the Yalu River and the decrepit North Korean city of Sinuiju, he specialized in tours in China promoting a North Korean program of cultural and economic activities. enrichment. It was in Dandong that the court, fueled by what Chinese prosecutors considered “evidence”, found him guilty while the other Canadian, Michael Kovrig, awaits his verdict and conviction.

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Manuel Balce Cenata / Getty

Having gotten to know Spavor through email communications and meetings during his visits to Seoul, I loved hearing him brag about his professional achievements. At a night out at Seoul’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club, he was the life of the party, kissing anyone close at hand, raising his glass to toast, laughing and joking about his role as a tour operator with a specialty. : North Korea. No matter how much water Spavor had absorbed, however, he was careful not to say anything that might tarnish the magic of his dealings with the North Koreans, who clearly viewed him as a useful intermediary.

However, it wouldn’t take much for the Chinese legal system to jail just about anyone who sided with the authorities. His trial, of course, took place behind closed doors, with no one to record what was said and no way for him to call his own witnesses or have a lawyer defend him, let alone questioning the system in which he was being held without bail and virtually no visitors other than occasional brief meetings with Canadian consular officials – before COVID-19 provided a pretext to cut contact.

Seemingly outgoing and still very sympathetic, Spavor, now 45, was happy to chat and pat his shoulders with just about everyone he met. Speaking of his accomplishments, however, he had a way of smiling and pulling himself together when asked what he really knew about North Korea’s atrocious human rights record or secrets. most intimate areas of the Kim dynasty. I got to know him during my attempts to enter North Korea.

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AP Photo / Mark Schiefelbein

Despite all his good humor and camaraderie, he was smart enough to tell me, in person and in emails, that he just wasn’t able to get me a visa for North Korea since I was was a quantity known as an American and a journalist. I have managed to visit North Korea on several occasions, twice for stays of more than two weeks under other auspices, pretending to be a teacher or an academic.

On one of these visits, I met him with another group of tourists, as always playing an old friend’s act which belied the dedication with which he organized contacts between North Korea and the enthusiastic foreign visitors.

“BACK TO SEOUL! began a message he sent announcing a visit to South Korea scheduled for early December 2018. His cheerful tone, informing his contacts that he would be returning from Dandong “for a few days for a new consultancy job,” leaves no stone unturned. no doubt he didn’t have a clue of what was to come when he returned to China. It wasn’t until he didn’t show up that we heard of his arrest.

Interspersed with smiley emoji, he rambled in his usual hyper-friendly style, “Yeah! And a few meetings, ”said his email, which I have kept as a colorful reference to one of the most engaging intermediaries between curious strangers and a system that remains closed to all but superficial eyes.

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“I’ll be busy, but if you want to have some Makgeollis (Korean rice wine) or beers with some of my friends, go out on Tuesday and / or Friday,” he kindly invited everyone. “Everyone is welcome, do not hesitate to accompany you and bring friends. “

Spavor was at his best for a effervescent party when he joined Dennis Rodman on Kim Jong Un’s 30th birthday party in Pyongyang in 2014. Spavor, whose travel agency handled the details of the tour, said distinction of being one of the few westerners to have met Kim.

The January 2014 trip is the most memorable for Rodman who sang “Happy Birthday” to the North Korean leader, who had inherited his post just over a year earlier after the death of his longtime father, Kim. Jong-il, in December 2011. Reuters quotes Spavor as describing the events as “an explosion” in which “we hung out for three days”, surely “the most incredible experience I have had in my life”.

Photographs show Rodman frolicking with Kim at a basketball game and Spavor enjoying a drink with the North Korean leader on a yacht off Wonsan Harbor on the east coast near One of Kim’s lavish residences.

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All of this, according to a senior diplomatic source who requested anonymity, may have contributed to Spavor’s loss. “What he apparently did with NK was always extremely risky,” the source told me in an email.

Of course, he continued, “There must have been tons of intelligence officers from many state services all over him for at least several years. But the Chinese, he explained, “would of course have been deeply suspicious of him and of those for whom they thought he worked. And even if they weren’t sure he was working for a department, how easy they would have found it to mess him with that when they needed someone to hold Canada hostage.

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As to why the Chinese would attack Spavor when he was such a friend of North Korea, he said, “the Chinese despise and even hate the North Koreans”, despite their alliance of long standing with North Korea dating back to the Korean War. Moreover, they may have assumed that he “was not really a friend of NK but worked for others”.

Spavor can still appeal his conviction, but he and Kovrig are widely seen as pawns in a much larger power game.

They were both arrested almost immediately after the arrest in Vancouver 2018 of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei, following a US request for extradition from Canada. Near-free on a $ 7.5 billion bond, she’s not going anywhere without an escort, has to wear an ankle bracelet, and has to return to her luxury digs at night. Hearings in Vancouver have just ended and the court is expected to decide in two months whether to send her to the United States for trial there for fraudulent violation of sanctions banning trade with Iran in statements to HSBC Holdings.

As the United States’ relationship with China deteriorates amid military and trade disputes, the case is an explosive international issue given Huawei’s global reach as a tech giant. Spavor and Kovrig can only hope the court rules in favor of Meng and Huawei, who have vigorously denounced his arrest as politically motivated.

As for the Chinese case against Spavor, Canada’s Ambassador to China Dominic Barton said it “lacks both fairness and transparency.” Some of the so-called evidence against “the two Michael’s,” as it is sometimes called in Canada, revolves around photographs Spavor allegedly took of military planes. Barton, according to NK News, a website in Seoul that tracks North Korea, said Spavor and Kovrig “are being arbitrarily detained” and pledged to “continue to call for their immediate release.” The claim to photograph military planes is suspect as Chinese military planes are often seen in or near commercial airports, and are easily photographed by anyone taking souvenir photos.

Spavor, meanwhile, remains irrepressibly optimistic, at least judging by a commentary on the case transmitted via the Canadian embassy in Beijing. “I’m in a good mood,” he told NK News. “I want to go back home.”

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