Canadians Michael Spavor, an expert on North Korea, and Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat accused of spying, were released and returned to their home countries Saturday (25), ending a bitter three-year dispute with China.
At the same time, the chief financial officer of China’s telecommunications giant, Meng Wanzhou, is also returning to the Asian country after an unprecedented crisis known as “hostage diplomacy”.
He met with Kim Jong Un and arranged a visit to Pyongyang for former basketball player Dennis Rodman. Michael Spavor from Canada, sentenced to 11 years in prison in China for spying, a North Korea expert.
The man, one of the few Westerners to have reached the upper echelons of North Korean power, has been an intermediary for a decade between the isolated country’s authorities and foreign businessmen, organizations and tourists.
For example, he arranged for Dennis Rodman’s visit to North Korea, where the former Chicago Bulls star developed a surprising friendship with the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, for which he even sang his birthday.
All of this is made possible by the closeness between Spavor and the North Korean leader, who appears together in many photos.
Born in Calgary, in the province of Alberta (western Canada), Spavor fell in love with North Korea during his stay in Seoul in the late 1990s.
Years later, in 2005, he spent several months in the North Korean capital working for a Canadian association. Since then, and until his arrest in late 2018, he has not stopped going to Pyongyang.
Michael Spavor is based in the Chinese city of Dandong, where he was tried in mid-March. The city is located on the border with North Korea and is a major crossing point between the two countries.
The director of Canada’s “Paektu Cultural Exchange”, which he describes on his Facebook account as an “international non-governmental organization that facilitates sports, cultural, tourist and commercial exchange” with North Korea.
“Paektu” is the name of the highest mountain in North Korea, the birthplace of Kim Jong Il, the father of the current ruler.
Spavor, who speaks fluent Korean, is an intermediary for foreign companies looking to establish themselves in Pyongyang.
His mediation was helpful, as North Korea is subject to several international sanctions over its nuclear program.
Former diplomat in Beijing, Canada Michael Kovrig worked as a consultant for the International Crisis Group until his arrest on December 10, 2018.
He shares his experiences with China and regularly publishes geopolitical analysis for specialist media.
A graduate of International Relations, the 49-year-old career diplomat was held for one year on leave.
He previously worked at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing, Hong Kong and at the United Nations. He speaks Mandarin and people around him describe him as a quiet person.
To keep his spirits up, he devours books, mainly philosophy, but also “biographies of people who went through the same ordeal as he did,” his wife Vina Nadjibulla, who lives in Toronto, told AFP.
The son of a Czech and Hungarian, fan of Leonard Cohen and British rock singer Sisters of Mercy also devoted himself to music; in his youth, he had participated in a punk band.
Kovrig is being held in a cell of less than 10 square meters, according to media, where he tries to take 7,000 steps a day, according to his wife.
During their six months in prison, Kovrig and Spavor underwent hours of interrogation and were forced to sleep with the lights on, several people close to the case told AFP.
“Coffee aficionado nerd. Troublemaker. General communicator. Gamer. Analyst. Creator. Total brew ninja.”