The identity of a second Canadian citizen whose whereabouts in China are unknown was confirmed Dec. 12 by authorities in Ottawa.
Michael Spavor, a 43-year-old businessman living in the north of China, is widely known among the Korean-watching community as someone has for many years had near-unfettered access to North Korea—including to the highest ranks of power in the reclusive country, meeting with Kim Jong Un multiple times. Spavor is the head of the Paektu Cultural Exchange, which organizes trips to North Korea, including former NBA star Dennis Rodman’s second visit to the country in 2013.
The Canadian government said in a statement that Spavor went missing after he contacted them to let them know he had been questioned by Chinese authorities. Spavor is the second Canadian to go missing in China this week, following the arrest of former diplomat Michael Kovrig by authorities. China has not disclosed Kovrig’s whereabouts, but said that his employer, the nonprofit organization International Crisis Group, may have violated NGO laws in China.
A Chinese media outlet affiliated with the government of Liaoning reported this morning (Dec. 13) that Spavor has been in detention since Dec. 10 in that province. The Chinese foreign ministry has confirmed the detention of Kovrig and Spavor on grounds of jeopardizing China’s national security.
According to Seoul-based publication NK News, Spavor was due to arrive in Seoul on Dec. 10 for an event, but never got there. Spavor last tweeted on that day. Paektu Cultural Exchange’s next scheduled tour to North Korea was planned for Dec. 30 to celebrate New Year’s in Pyongyang. The organization did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Kovrig’s arrest is widely seen to be a retaliatory move by Beijing against the arrest of telecoms equipment maker Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver earlier this month. She was granted bail on Tuesday. In a recent video, Hu Xijin, editor of the state-run nationalistic tabloid Global Times, warned that China would “definitely take retaliatory measures against Canada” if Meng was not granted her freedom, and that China’s revenge “will be far worse than detaining a Canadian.”
According to a profile of Spavor by Canadian publication Maclean’s in 2013, he became interested in North Korea after traveling to South Korea in the late 1990s, and later went on to teach at a NGO-affiliated school in Pyongyang. Described as soft-spoken and and mild-mannered, Spavor continued to travel in and out of North Korea from his base in Dandong in China, even learning the North Korean dialect. Spavor said that he was able to develop his network in North Korea by engaging with locals: “I really learned how to party with North Koreans,” he told Maclean’s. He’s also spoken positively of Kim, describing the North Korean leader as “fun” and “old beyond his years” in an interview (paywall) with the Washington Post last year.
Spavor’s disappearance echoes the arrest of a Canadian couple in Dandong in 2014, another Chinese city near the North Korean border. The couple, Kevin and Julia Garratt, ran a coffee shop there, were arrested for spying and held in solitary confinement for six months. At the time, Canada had arrested a Chinese citizen at the request of the US who wanted him extradited on spying charges. In an interview with Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail before Spavor’s disappearance was made known, Julia Garratt said: “I just can’t believe they would do it again.”