SEOUL (Reuters) – Canadian Michael Spavor has jet skied with Kim Jong Un, felt the ground shake from a North Korean nuclear test, and now it appears, been detained by Chinese authorities.
Mr Spavor, a business consultant with deep ties to North Korea, is being investigated on suspicion of endangering state security, Chinese state media reported. The Canadian government says it has been unable to contact him and phone calls, messages and emails to Mr Spavor went unanswered yesterday.
When North Korean leader Kim launched a bid to engage the world and attract international investment this year, Mr Spavor was uniquely positioned to play a role.
As one of the few Westerners with personal ties to the North Korea government and Kim himself, Mr Spavor has been trying to drum up international interest in investing in North Korean economic projects, in anticipation of sanctions being eased amid warming ties.
Mr Spavor is best known in the region for his relationship with Kim Jong Un, and his role in facilitating a visit to Pyongyang by American basketball star Dennis Rodman in 2013.
“That was the most amazing experience I’ve had in my life. We hung out for three days,” Mr Spavor told Reuters in a 2017 interview.
Images from that time show Mr Spavor sharing cocktails with Mr Kim on board one of his private boats, after they had been jet-skiing in the bay next to Wonsan, one of Mr Kim’s pet economic development areas.
In 2015, Mr Spavor was involved in efforts to attract more than $150 million in foreign funds for Wonsan, including $39 million to fund a new brewery.
The investigation into Mr Spavor follows the detention in Beijing on Monday of former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, who Chinese state media report is being investigated on the same charges.
China has reacted angrily to Canada’s arrest on Dec. 1 of Chinese executive Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of China’s Huawei Technologies, and Mr Spavor’s investigation is likely to further escalate the diplomatic row.
Now based in the border city of Dandong in China, Mr Spavor has been cultivating ties between potential Chinese investors and North Korean officials.
Mr Spavor’s experience with North Korea dates to at least 2001. In 2005, he lived in Pyongyang for several months teaching at a school run by a Canadian non-governmental organisation. Since then he’s mastered the Korean language – with a distinctly North Korean accent – and maintained regular contact with many people in North Korea, including Kim Jong Un.
But Mr Spavor also is discrete about his contacts with the controversial regime, declining to comment on politics and noting that his work focuses on cultural and business ties.
In his latest posts on social media on Monday, Mr Spavor said he was on his way to the South Korean capital of Seoul for new consulting work and meetings with friends. His friends say he never arrived.