The Canadian entrepreneur, who knows Kim Jong-un personally, was charged with espionage, along with former diplomat Michael Kovrig

China denies any links to Canada’s detention of Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou, but a friend said Spavor is a victim of an ‘international power struggle’

Friends and

watchers have expressed disappointment and concern after Chinese authorities

, a Canadian entrepreneur and pro-engagement advocate known for his personal relationship with

’s top prosecutor said on Friday it had begun the prosecution of Spavor for stealing and providing state secrets to foreign countries, as well as proceedings against former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig for gathering state secrets and intelligence.

The two Canadians have been in Chinese custody since being arrested in December 2018, in a move widely seen as retaliation for

’s detention of


as she awaits possible extradition to face fraud charges in the

. Ottawa has described the arrests as “arbitrary” and called for their immediate release.

Beijing has denied there is any link to Meng’s case, but has demanded the executive’s release, accusing Canada of working with the US to suppress Huawei, which Washington and its allies have labelled a national security threat.

Spavor is being prosecuted by Dandong Procuratorate in Liaoning province while the Second Branch Court of the People’s Procuratorate of Beijing filed a prosecution against Kovrig. Both face potential maximum sentences of life in prison. Guilty verdicts are all but assured in a judicial system with conviction rates above 99 per cent.

Jacco Zwetsloot, a friend of Spavor who hosts a podcast for specialist news site NK News, said the Canadian was innocent and a victim of an “international power struggle”.

“I know Michael to be a peaceful man interested in reconciliation between North Korea and the world and between the two Koreas,” said Zwetsloot, who lives in Seoul. “He’s not a political man. He’s not a spy or secret agent.”

Zwetsloot said Spavor, who is accused of passing intelligence to Kovrig, did not read Chinese and was not fluent in the language, making it “implausible” that he could secretly gather state secrets.

“It sounds like a baseless accusation,” he said.

Spavor, who is in his mid-40s, first visited North Korea in 2001 and had spent more than a decade arranging cultural exchanges, tourism and investment involving the reclusive country, most recently setting up a base in the Chinese border city of Dandong.

His organisation Paektu Cultural Exchange described its mission as facilitating interaction between the North and the outside world “to promote greater peace, friendship, and understanding”.

Before Spavor’s arrest, the organisation had listed tourist packages for the Pyongyang Marathon and a North Korean ski resort among its upcoming projects.

The Calgary-native and fluent Korean speaker is among the few Westerners who can claim to know Kim Jong-un personally, and even shared drinks with the dictator on his private yacht.

Most famously, Spavor organised NBA star Dennis Rodman’s high-profile visits to North Korea to meet Kim in 2013 and 2014.

Jon Dunbar, a South Korea-based newspaper editor who has known Spavor for more than a decade, said his friend had only set up a base in China to be close to the North.

“If Michael has been privy to any state secrets, it would probably be limited to North Korean state secrets that Kim Jong-un told him in person,” Dunbar said.

“He’s a very friendly guy who never seems to take anything too seriously, and has a deep love for Korea – either Korea.”

Chad O’Carroll, the CEO of Korea Risk Group, called on Canada to do more to secure Spavor’s release, describing its efforts so far as “miserable”.

“Michael is fun-loving and hugely passionate about DPRK issues,” O’Carroll said. “He has spent over a decade trying to improve the lives of ordinary North Koreans through exchanges and visits to the country.”

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