Mr. Spavor’s family, which has said little publicly about him or the trial, released a statement through a lawyer, striking a somewhat hopeful note: “While we disagree with the charges, we realize that this is the next step in the process to bring Michael home.”
Mr. Spavor forged a career doing business with North Korea and living in Dandong, a Chinese city looking across the Yalu River into the North. But he appeared much more interested in people and adventures than high politics, his friends have said.
“Spavor did not come off as very political, or ideological for that matter,” said John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. “Creating bridges with North Koreans is incredibly challenging, mostly thankless work, but Michael approached it with an entrepreneurial spirit.”
In 2013, Mr. Spavor helped organize a visit to North Korea by Mr. Rodman, the retired basketball player, and then a second visit the following year. Mr. Spavor’s company, Paektu Cultural Exchange, posted a picture showing Mr. Spavor with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, on Mr. Kim’s yacht in 2013.
Mr. Spavor’s supporters have said that his interest in North Korea reflected his affection for its people, going back to when he was a student in South Korea in the 1990s. Mr. Spavor later did a stint as an English-language teacher in Pyongyang and honed the distinctive Northern dialect of Korean.
“In China, he was perfectly positioned between the Koreas. He also liked living among the ethnic Korean population in Chinese border cities,” Jon Dunbar, a copy editor in Seoul who has been a friend of Mr. Spavor’s for over a decade, wrote by email. “He had no fear at all of living in China, just like he was comfortable visiting North Korea.”