Sometime last spring, Dennis Rodman, the unpredictable, flamboyant NBA hall of famer, found he had a problem: How was he going to get back into North Korea?
As it happened, Rodman had a standing invitation from that hermetic country’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un—a man Rodman has described as “my friend” ever since his first trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) last March. But, the DPRK is not an easy holiday destination, and Kim hadn’t offered to send a personal jet.
Rodman’s first trip had been worry-free—it was arranged by the in-your-face media company Vice, which used Rodman’s allure as a former Chicago Bull (the ruling Kim dynasty has an enduring fascination with the team) to gain entry to the country and shoot an HBO documentary. But the Vice crew’s anti-Kim agenda had left North Korean officials, and Rodman himself, nonplussed. This time, Rodman wanted to go unencumbered by cameras and press people. So what to do?
“They tried to go to a travel agent, I guess, but obviously it doesn’t work that way,” says Joseph Terwilliger, a geneticist at the Columbia University Medical Center, who got involved in Rodman’s quest after successfully bidding on a basketball game with him at a charity auction. The pair shot hoops, but mainly they talked North Korea.
Terwilliger told Rodman he knew exactly who could help: Michael Spavor, a Canadian he’d first met at the bar of the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang some years ago, and who has developed a reputation for being one of those rare things—a foreigner whom the North Koreans have come to trust, and who can get things done in that country.
Spavor, 38, is not what you’d expect from an emissary to North Korea. An affable, mild-mannered type who grew up in a Calgary suburb, he first became intrigued by North Korea during a short stay in Seoul in the late 1990s, when, flipping through the Lonely Planet travel guide, he stumbled across the section on the DPRK—“just a little sliver in the back,” he recalls. “It was the most interesting part of the whole book.”
He went on to live in Pyongyang for six months in 2005, working as a teacher at a school affiliated with a Vancouver-based NGO. He’s been in and out of the DPRK ever since, developing key contacts in the regime along the way. Spavor speaks the North Korean dialect—a more formal variant of the southern—so fluently that he fools people on the phone, and he ran a school specializing in DPRK Korean in Yanji, the city in a largely Korean corner of northeast China where he now lives.
Not your typical line of work, and occasionally it raises eyebrows. Passing through the U.S. a few weeks ago, his unusual travel itinerary raised red flags with a customs official. Spavor asked if the officer had heard about Rodman’s trip to North Korea in early September. Sure, he had. “I organized it,” Spavor told him. “It was a blast.”
It was, in some ways, a bro vacation. Rodman’s entourage included; Christopher Volo, a mixed-martial-arts fighter, and Terwilliger, the Columbia prof, who also happens to be a pro tuba player. Terwilliger had become fascinated by the DPRK as a kid listening to shortwave radio from Pyongyang; he’d been on North Korea’s propaganda mailing list for years and found the material he received “interesting.” Together, the men sang, drank, ate and laughed with Marshall Kim, as he likes to be known, at his seaside retreat, a “seven-star” home-away-from-home that Rodman later compared to Ibiza.
“In the media, Marshall Kim Jung Un is portrayed as serious,” Spavor told Maclean’s in an interview. “But we were able to see a more charismatic, friendly side to him. He has a good sense of humour.”
Spavor carries official pictures, taken by a state photographer, of the encounter on his iPhone, and though he’s wary of whom he shows them to—Spavor is fastidiously careful in regards to everything DPRK-related—it’s clear from the shots that this was a casual affair enjoyed by Rodman, his entourage, and by Kim, who is thought to be around 30.
“Dennis and Marshall Kim talked, and Michael and I tried to translate as much as we could,” explains Terwilliger.
Then he corrects himself.
“I mean, Michael translated as much as he could to Korean,” he says. “I was more translating Dennis to English.”
The two Rodman visits to North Korea have received their share of ridicule—North Korea, after all, is a pariah state, with a troubling human rights record and a history of threatening its enemies, including the U.S., with nuclear destruction. But, Spavor, who has led many similar, though lower-profile, cultural-exchange tours there—students and faculty from Cambridge, Harvard and McGill have seen North Korea from the inside, thanks to his ministrations—saw Rodman’s visits as “a chance for international relationship-building, in this case, through the medium of sport.”
Asked if such an endeavour makes him an apologist for what many consider a pretty nasty regime, Spavor won’t be drawn in. “I’m really in no position to comment on political and human rights issues,” he says. “Those issues are better discussed between governments.”
During his time living in Pyongyang, Spavor was able to observe “regular, everyday life”—people going to work, young couples walking hand-in-hand, vibrant markets. “I met a lot of really beautiful people—so sweet,” he says. “It was contrary to what I’d heard, that they were cold. You hear about this mysterious, unfriendly place.”
He credits his good contacts in North Korea with his capacity to interact with the North Koreans on their own terms—a rapport he picked up while eating, drinking and singing with them during his brief time living there. “I really learned how to party with North Koreans—to party and enjoy myself in their environment,” he says. “I have a rare and odd skill that enables me to connect the DPRK to other people.” Spavor celebrated his birthday in North Korea in November, feasting on North Korean birthday cake, which he says was delicious.
It was his relationship with the North Korean regime that helped Spavor spirit Rodman through Beijing, where the basketball legend sought to keep a low profile, and onto a flight with Air Koryo, the North Korean airline. “You know, it’s not easy hiding a six-foot-seven black guy with tongue piercings and tattoos in China,” says Terwilliger.
Indeed, Spavor has carved out a reputation as a street-smart, savvy conduit, someone the North Koreans know is capable of discretion.
“If you sent a traditionally diplomatically minded person, it would be very difficult for such a person to deal with North Korea,” says Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul and a leading authority on North Korea. “Michael has a great deal of common sense, and he’s a very normal guy, but also very smart. He understands the society and he’s not afraid to experiment and do things that are unusual.” Hence, Spavor’s willingness to engage with the North Koreans on the basketball court.
Spavor’s unusual relationship with the North Koreans is driving plans, bankrolled by the colourful Irish bookmaking company Paddy Power, to mount a basketball exchange between the U.S. and the DPRK in January, when between 10 and 12 former NBA players—Spavor won’t name names—are due to arrive in Pyongyang to help coach North Korea’s national basketball team.
And it is Spavor, as a Canadian, whom officials in North Korea’s ministry of sport approached with the idea of setting up a hockey exchange between North Korea and Canada. The project is still in its early stages, but Spavor says there is interest from the NHL. He envisions NHL players and coaches arriving next autumn or winter to help train the country’s national team. As it turns out, the North Koreans do play hockey, in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Division III category, which also includes such lesser hockey nations as South Africa, Ireland and Greece. He’s also looking into organizing another sports exchange between North Korea and Canada—this one centred on skiing (the DPRK is poised to open its first ski resort, at the Masik Pass, on the country’s east coast).
The DPRK is borrowing from American culture in other ways, too. Spavor carries with him the Samjiyon, a North Korean-made tablet computer loaded with North Korean books, and with the republic’s answer to Angry Birds, a computer game called Gomuchong—rubber gun—that looks remarkably similar to the one-time iPhone sensation. Another stab at a cultural exchange? Perhaps. It may also be piracy.