SEOUL – Canadian Michael Spavor has been freed by China in a deal for Huawei tycoon’s daughter Meng Wenzhou, but his life’s work has been thrown into turmoil.
His release was welcomed in Canada and South Korea – and also, possibly in North Korea. Spavor, a fluent Korean speaker who had lived in South Korea and who ran a China-based company that specialized in interacting with North Korea, was one of a tiny handful of outsiders who has spent time hanging with Kim Jong Un, his family, and his closest aides.
Before continuing, I should declare my colors, for this is not a typical Asia Times story.
As this outlet’s Northeast Asia editor, I write with what I hope is dispassionate professionalism as I cover news and developments in the Koreas, Japan and around the region.
But on this particular subject, I am what is known in the trade as a “prejudiced source” – someone who is too close to a story to be objective.
I am a friend of Spavor, who I knew well in Seoul and who I visited in 2016 after he had relocated to Northeast China in 2016. Like many members of the small and sometimes disputatious but always vibrant community of North Korea watchers, I was anguished when I learned Spavor had been jailed in China.
So, I beg the indulgence of you, the reader. If you choose to continue reading this article, please bear in mind the above.
The bare bones of Spavor’s case are well known.
In December 2018, he was arrested by Chinese officials in the city of Dandong, which lies just across the Yalu River from Shinuiju, North Korea, and acts as a key gateway into that country. At the same time Michael Kovrig, a Canadian risk analyst working for the International Crisis Group, was also arrested.
Both arrests followed the detention by Canadian authorities in Vancouver of Meng Wengzhou, pending her extradition to the United States, which accused her of evading US sanctions on Iran. Meng is the daughter of Ren Zhengfei, the founder and chairman of Chinese technology giant Huawei. Huawei was being heavily targeted by the then-Donald Trump administration in the US as it waged a “tech war” against China.
Beijing’s seizure of the “two Michaels” was widely interpreted by the Western commentariat as de facto retaliation by China. In August 2021, Spavor was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment in China for espionage, a verdict he appealed.
Beijing released both Michaels immediately after Meng cut a deal with US authorities, allowing her to return to China.
At time of writing, the two Michaels were on a flight to Canada in the company of Ottawa’s ambassador to Beijing, Dominic Barton. (Barton, like Spavor, is an old Seoul hand. He previously headed up the McKinsey office in South Korea.)
The swift release of Spavor by Chinese authorities was cause for celebration.
I awoke on Saturday morning to text messages and social media discussions relating to Spavor’s release. That caused an air punch or two. Those of us who knew Michael had been worried about both his condition in prison and his future.
Until Saturday, it had been far from clear how long he might languish in a cell and what he would do when he was eventually released, given that the drama has essentially ruined not just his business, but also his self-appointed life’s mission.
Of course, I was not the only one pleased at his freedom.
“I was stunned and quickly overcome by various emotions,” said Jacco Zwetzloot a Seoul-based Dutchman who hosts a podcast for specialist media NKNews and who is a friend of Spavor. “It was happiness, relief and a little bit of residual anger. I did not expect it to happen this quickly.”
“Residual anger,” indeed.
One might reasonably assume that a criminal convicted of espionage would be required to serve his sentence, entirely independently of the fate of a high-profile business executive on the other side of the Pacific. Spavor’s swift release by Beijing, without any official pardon or apparent judicial procedures, fortifies the widespread belief that Beijing’s seizure of Spavor was hostage diplomacy, pure and simple.
“My reaction was that it seems to validate what we were saying all along, that the two Michaels were being held in retaliation for Meng, so as soon as her situation in Canada ended, China did not need the two Michaels,” said Jon Dunbar, a Seoul news editor and friend of Spavor who had visited North Korea twice in his company.
Lakhvinder Singh, a Seoul-based academic, was more succinct. “Exchange of prisoners, Hollywood style,” he wrote.
The Chinese contention that Spavor was spy was widely derided as ludicrous by those who knew him. Spavor was an animated, sociable man who loved to talk and enjoyed a drink. That hardly made him the kind of low-profile, discrete player an agency uses to conduct field work.
But if not a professional spy, could he have been an asset?
Many secret services leverage ordinary people as sources of information. Spavor loved to talk about North Korea. Could he have been approached by a foreign agent within China, spoken to him/her while being wined and dined, and divulged sensitive information?
Or, in his travels around the China-North Korea border area, could he have unwittingly photographed a secure location?
Both are possible and (with hindsight) I wondered more than once if Spavor’s activities in Dandong – a fascinating city brimming with intrigue – and adventurous personality may have made him vulnerable to any counter-intelligence agent who wanted to catch a spook.
But if he was not a spy, the widespread characterization of him in media as a China-based “businessman” also misses the mark. Though Spavor owned suits, he was most definitely not a member of the suit-wearing class, and was certainly not well funded.
What he was, was an unusual man who had formed an emotive, perhaps even romantic, attachment to North Korea and made it his mission to bring overseas engagers to that isolated and misunderstood country.
He won some stature for his interactions with the North. Hired as an interpreter on the high-profile trip to North Korea undertaken by US basketball star Denis Rodman, Spavor spent considerable time, at close quarters, with Kim Jong Un and his close family and aides.
His photographs were remarkable. At a presentation I arranged for him in Seoul, he spoke to a South Korean audience about North Korea in general. Then, when he showed images of himself and a casually dressed Kim relaxing together, with drinks, on Kim’s yacht, an audible gasp of astonishment swept the room.
But he ran into the obstacles that face virtually all Westerners who seek to undertake economic activities in North Korea.
On the one hand, North Korea is a nation that only adopted capitalist practices as a means of survival, and consequently lacks the infrastructure, experience and commercial mindset of the far richer nations which surround it. On the other hand, it is massively sanctioned by the international community.
So Spavor’s company, Baekdu Cultural Exchange – named after the semi-sacred mountain that straddles the China-North Korea frontier – did not do a lot of commerce per se. Yet, he found ways to journey to the country he loved – taking tour groups in, hosting an international hockey interchange and even assisting Dutch royalty in a project to restore a traditional pavilion.
That company can no longer function. And given his dire experiences with Beijing’s justice system, it seems unlikely that Spavor can continue cross-border activities, for China is the only country with reasonably widespread and regular access to North Korea.
South Korea’s border, the DMZ, is almost entirely closed. And there is far less interaction across Russia’s narrow frontier with the country than China’s.
Many of his friends worry about his condition after three years in a Chinese prison, though his amicable personality may have helped.
“He is a social, friendly guy – quite a strong spirit,” said Dunbar. “I imagine he made friends in jail. He is the kind of guy who has the right attitude to get through crises like this.”
Even so, Dunbar admitted he was “on pins and needles waiting to find out how he is.”
With his gateway to North Korea closed, Spavor’s future path is unclear.
“A lot of it depends on his mental state when he gets back. I have no insight into that yet,” said Zwetzloot, who was one of the key movers behind a GoFundMe campaign set up to provide funds for Spavor. “It may make sense for him to do some therapy and go on a lot of outdoor nature walks.”
A substantial period of decompression among family in Canada seems likely. And media may provide an earnings opportunity, given the curiosity that the world has about his experiences.
“It would be good for him to work with a good ghost writer on a book – or a Netflix series,” suggested Zwetzloot.
While Spavor was largely apolitical, his experience has generated considerable anti-China feeling among those familiar with the case.
Many – including writers on the pages of this outlet – have raised reasonable, and important questions regarding the Trump administration’s aggressive stance toward both China and Huawei. But a comparison of the experiences of Meng in Canada and those of Spavor in China hardly cast a favorable light on the latter.
The case against Meng was made clear, and related legal processes were transparent. She was kept under house arrest in a well-appointed mansion. The case against Spavor was opaque in the extreme, and he was jailed for his murky transgression.
Moreover, Spavor’s three-year tribulation provides a warning that China expatriates hailing from countries undergoing tense relations with Beijing might ponder.
“If you are a Canadian living there next time there is a conflict between Canada and China, you could be next,” said Dunbar, who is Canadian. “Anyone from a middle power such as Australia or Canada should be very worried about being in China.”
While Spavor’s family will not doubt rejoice at his homecoming, friends in South Korea expect that – given his experiences, skills and interests – he will be returning to these shores at some time in the middle term.
“We cant wait to hear him as he dines out on his stories,” said Zwetzloot. “The sooner the better!”
I would mirror that.
Mike: Welcome back, mate. You have been missed. I trust all will soon be well, and hope to see you soon.
For anyone who wishes to donate to the GoFundMe campaign set up by Zwetzloot and others, and now administered by Spavor’s brother Paul, please click here.