Based in the northeastern border city of Dandong, Michael Spavor is the founder and director of the Paektu Cultural Exchange, a non-profit that organizes trips to North Korea. Spavor is one of the few foreigners to have met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and even helped to facilitate basketball star Dennis Rodman’s visit to Pyongyang in 2013.
In his most recent Facebook post, Spavor announced that he would be in Seoul for a few days from Monday, however, he did not arrive as planned.
On Wednesday, Canada’s foreign ministry confirmed that Spavor was “presently missing in China.” The following day, Chinese state media reported that Spavor was under investigation for suspected involvement in “activities harming China’s national security,” a vague term that could include a variety of crimes including espionage.
Spavor’s detention comes only days after the detention of Michael Kovirg, a former Canadian diplomat now working for the NGO think tank International Crisis Group (ICG), who was later reported to be under investigation by the Beijing State Security Bureau on suspicion of actions “harming state security.”
Many believe that Kovrig’s detention came in retaliation to Canada’s arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou on December 1st. That arrest came at the behest of the United States where the 46-year-old executive is wanted for allegedly violating sanctions against Iran.
Meng’s arrest has infuriated China which has warned that Canada will face “serious consequences” if she is not quickly released. It’s not yet clear if these cases are connected, however, the Canadian and American business and NGO community in China have been living in fear of possible reprisals.
While Canada has said that there is currently no “explicit indication” of any link, when asked on Tuesday about whether Kovrig’s detention was just a coincidence, former Canadian ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques, did not hold back, saying: “In China there are no coincidences. In this case it is clear the Chinese government wants to put maximum pressure on the Canadian government.”