Canadian consultant falls foul of China

Seoul (AFP) –


Irrepressible, linguistically adept, and astonishingly well-connected: the second Canadian being investigated for allegedly harming Chinese state security is a businessman whose relationships in North Korea go right to the very top.

Michael Spavor is among only a handful of Westerners who met Kim Jong Un between his inheriting power in the North in 2011 and this year's Singapore summit with Donald Trump.

He was instrumental in arranging visits by former Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman to Pyongyang, where the player known as The Worm struck up an unlikely friendship with Kim, on one occasion singing him "Happy Birthday".

Spavor has been pictured sitting next to Kim, sharing cigarettes and cocktails on board the North Korean leader's private yacht, moored off the country's east coast.

Other images show the two grinning broadly, or shaking hands.

For years, Spavor has been based in the Chinese city of Dandong, on the border with the North.

His Paektu Cultural Exchange describes itself as a "non-profit social enterprise dedicated to facilitating sustainable cooperation, cross-cultural exchanges, tourism, trade, and economic exchanges" involving the North.

It runs a rural educational project in Samjiyon county, promotes sporting events in the North, occasionally sends tour groups to the isolated country, and has a consulting arm.

Spavor focuses on introducing foreign businesses to the North, which is subject to multiple sets of sanctions over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.

But a rapid diplomatic rapprochement on the peninsula has raised the possibility that the measures could be relaxed -- a key demand of Pyongyang's.

For now new investments are largely barred, but Spavor told AFP earlier this year 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.

North Korean economic officials were also contacting him "more regularly", he added.

Spavor, who is in his early forties and from Calgary in Alberta, first became intrigued by North Korea during a short stay in Seoul in the late 1990s, and lived in Pyongyang for a time in 2005 while working for a Canadian NGO.

He now speaks fluent Korean -- with a distinct northern accent.

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.

"Negotiating a business deal with the DPRK is complicated and can be quite difficult for a number of reasons," he added. "You also need to know how to connect with the right people inside the country, which can also be challenging."