Michael Spavor, at left, in his favorite country – North Korea. Photo: Jon Dunbar

Visiting North Korea, doing business with the totalitarian state – even befriending its secretive leader Kim Jong Un – is a disaster waiting to happen, right?

You’ll lose a fortune, wind up in a secret prison, or get shipped home in a coma like ill-fated American tourist Otto Warmbier.

Michael Spavor, 44, a Canadian who chased his dream of organizing cultural, sports and investment exchanges with North Korea, has indeed suffered a dire fate. He has been incarcerated for more than 500 days and counting.

Yet it is not North Korea but China – the nation in which Spavor chose to base himself, and a nation with which Canada has enjoyed decades of normal relations – that jailed him, along with fellow Canadian former diplomat and political-risk consultant Michael Kovrig.

After their separate detentions in December 2018, the two were, last week, formally charged with spying. The charge reportedly carries a sentence of 10 years behind bars.

The night he never arrived

The last time I saw Michael Spavor was in September 2018 at the Yanggakdo Hotel lobby bar in Pyongyang, my final night of a visit orchestrated and led by him.

A few months later, in December, he e-mailed me saying he was coming to visit Seoul, South Korea, where I am based, from Dandong, China. Dandong was where Spavor ran his business, Paektu Cultural Exchange, a small company organizing cultural delegations, sports exchanges, and business consulting to and in North Korea.

He looked forward to seeing his many friends in Seoul – where he had formerly lived – and asked me about lecture opportunities.

Michael Spavor, between destinations. Photo: Jon Dunbar

But he never arrived. His friends were mystified – then news broke that he’d been detained in China.

His detention on December 10, 2018, came nine days after Canada had taken Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou into custody on a US legal request on December 1. Allegedly, Meng, who is also the daughter of the company’s founder, had committed fraud by lying to an HSBC executive about Huawei’s relationship with another company accused of violating US sanctions against Iran.

Between America and China

Huawei has long been suspected by US authorities of being closely linked to Beijing, and China’s apparent retaliatory action against two Canadians doesn’t dispel this allegation.

In what appears to be retaliation for Canada holding Meng under house arrest in one of her well-appointed Vancouver homes, China seized two Canadians and threw them behind bars.

Ottawa has been doing what it can to resolve the situation – which is limited because of the US extradition order for Meng. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made it clear he will not intervene in the country’s judicial processes.

But even if Canada were to make a unilateral deal for the release of the two, it would put all other Canadians abroad at risk of further “hostage diplomacy” from China – or from any other hostile country.

There has been much behind-the-scenes, consulate-level activity maintaining contact with Spavor. But nothing addresses the fundamental source of the issue, which Canada seems helpless to tackle without explicit US cooperation.

So Canada is caught between the two superpowers – which is probably right where China wants it, to show that Canada is too small to deal with this alone, and to divide it from its powerful ally.

And maybe Canada is too weak to take on China by itself. It may take US attention to find a solution, despite Washington’s trade war with Beijing.

As Spavor is collateral damage in that war, I sometimes imagine it will end in a cynical re-enactment of a Cold War-style prisoner exchange across a 21st-century “Checkpoint Charlie” or “Bridge of No Return.”

But the US, too busy these days debating which American lives matter, has paid little attention to the two Canadian Michaels in captivity. Certainly they haven’t received the attention lavished upon Warmbier, an American student whose drunk misadventure – also at the Yanggakdo Hotel – led to accusations of defacing a propaganda poster.

Warmbier’s imprisonment and resultant death were greatly politicized. The same can’t be said for the two Michaels, who are in essence powerless political hostages.

So why did China target my friend? Certainly not because he took time out from his life’s mission of building human relations with North Korea to spy on China.

My best guess is it came down to two factors.

One: The high profile Michael Spavor enjoys in related circles for his activities in the North – he joined the famous Dennis Rodman mission to visit Kim Jong Un. Two: The fact he was in transit in China at the time of his abduction. China monitors all travel on its soil, requiring identification even at intercity train stations.

So I infer that Beijing compiled a list of Canadians of interest, and simply detained the first two to pop up in its system.

To sum up: Who Spavor is, and what he did, doesn’t really factor in. He was simply a Canadian caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Building bridges

To understand Michael Spavor’s life’s work, you have to look at his activities in the Koreas, not the time he spent in China between visits to the peninsula.

When I met him in the mid-2000s while he lived in South Korea, he’d already spent half a year living in Pyongyang and said it was the best time of his life. He loved both Koreas and this led him to leave South Korea for a border city in China, Dandong, where he could be close to the North and make frequent visits.

He always swallowed his tongue on North Korea’s human-rights violations or other criticisms that could drive a wedge between him and his North Korean partners. And in China, he was known to associate only with North Koreans who were there legally, giving defector groups a wide berth.

That is the moral cost of doing business with the North. But I share his strong belief that his activities there did more good than bad.

Part of the reason Spavor was so successful in North Korea was his ability to put aside politics. He doesn’t care for arguments of communism versus capitalism or democracy versus dictatorship. To him, it’s not worth the effort when there’s a chance to do something real – like going on an adventure or bringing people together. 

Michael Spavor making friends on a trip to North Korea in 2010. Photo: Jon Dunbar

Imagining him in Chinese custody, I like to think he has maintained his indefatigable spirit, that he has made friends with his guards and interrogators, and that he’s using his spare time for reading, perhaps even mastering the Chinese language (his Korean is excellent).

As much as I wish he hadn’t spent the last year and a half in the notorious Chinese prison system, I also can’t think of anyone more suited to make the best of such an extreme environment.

Last week, China announced it had begun prosecuting Spavor for stealing state secrets and providing them to foreign countries. These are very serious charges.

But frankly, I haven’t paid attention. China will say whatever it wants about its prisoner. As far as I’m concerned, any pretenses of justice are just for show until Michael’s freedom is restored.

Even as my other friends ask, in disbelief, “Is he still in captivity?” I try to stay positive. Michael Spavor – who has spent the last several years dedicated to bringing nations together – would never want to be used to drive people apart.

Instead, I will treasure my own memories of North Korea, made possible by his vision and efforts, and dream of the day when we can freely return there together.

Jon Dunbar is a 16-year resident of South Korea, where he is a copy editor and council member of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea. He visited North Korea in 2010 and 2018 – both times on trips organized by Michael Spavor.