A second Canadian missing in China is under investigation on suspicion of “engaging in activities” which could “harm China’s national security,” the state media reported on Thursday.
Michael Spavor is “being investigated” by the Dandong city branch of China’s Ministry of State Security, a state-run news agency in Liaoning province revealed.
His disappearance emerged after former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig was detained by state security during a visit to Beijing on Monday.
According to media reports, both cases appear to be in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei and the daughter of the Chinese telecom giant’s founder, Ren Zhengfei.
“We have been unable to make contact [with Spavor] since he let us know he was being questioned by Chinese authorities,” Canadian foreign ministry spokesman Guillaume Berube said.
A consultant who arranged trips to North Korea from his base in northeast China, Spavor has built a long and special relationship with Pyongyang.
He speaks fluent Korean, has met with leader Kim Jong Un and joined visits to the reclusive country for retired American basketball icon Dennis Rodman.
The news of his apparent arrest has left acquaintances clearly concerned.
“I was stunned to hear of Mike’s apparent arrest, which is currently the talk of the town in Seoul’s NGO, journalistic and diplomatic circles,” Andrew Salmon, the Asia Times Northeast Asia correspondent and editor, said.
“Mike is an extremely nice guy, someone who worked from the heart. He truly loves North Korea and the North Korean people, and was someone who believed passionately in engagement rather than disengagement,” he continued.
“I sincerely hope that information will soon be forthcoming, that authorities on both sides of Mike’s case will be able to cooperate effectively, and that good sense will prevail,” Salmon, who has quoted Spavor as an expert source in Asia Times articles, added.
Earlier this week, Spavor had been expected to travel to Seoul, his former base, from Dandong, a gateway city which lies across the Yalu River from Sinuiju in North Korea.
He posted on social media that he was planning to attend a presentation to the Royal Asiatic Society in Seoul on Tuesday but failed to show up. This prompted raised eyebrows among some who attended the event, with many assuming he had missed a flight or it had been delayed.
Still, as someone who knew him said: “He was playing a dangerous game – he was working with North Korea and doing it from China. Neither of those regimes plays by ‘Western’ rules.”
The Chinese-North Korea border zone, home to the country’s ethnic Korean minority, is a sensitive area, due to smuggling and people trafficking which takes place across the frontier.
It is also a headache for Beijing, as it provides a location for Christian missionaries of various creeds and nationalities who assist North Koreans to escape their country, and join the “underground railway” which leads through China to Southeast Asia or South Korea.
This and the area’s geostrategic position makes it a playground for observers and information gatherers, such as journalists and spooks. Dandong, in fact, where Spavor was based, has a reputation as Northeast Asia’s “Casablanca.”
Even so, there is no indication that Spavor was engaged in any illegal activities. But what will alarm Canadian diplomats, and his family and friends, are the reported charges of breaching “national security,” which are potentially extremely serious.
As far as his business was concerned, Spavor ran the Paektu Cultural Exchange in Dandong, which is described as a “non-profit social enterprise dedicated to facilitating sustainable cooperation, cross-cultural exchanges, tourism, trade, and economic exchanges” involving North Korea.
For now, new investments are largely barred, but he told AFP earlier this year that he was receiving inquiries from investors interested in market research and “face-to-face matchmaking with potential DPRK ministries and future partners” for when sanctions are lifted.
“Negotiating a business deal with the DPRK is complicated and can be quite difficult for a number of reasons,” he said. “You also need to know how to connect with the right people inside the country, which can also be challenging.”
His apparent detention mirrors an earlier incident this week involving Kovrig, who works for the International Crisis Group think tank.
He is also under investigation on suspicion of “engaging in activities that endanger China’s national security,” a phrase often used in espionage cases, The Beijing News newspaper reported.
But friends and experts are convinced that Kovrig and probably Spavor have become “hostages” and “pawns” in the high-profile Meng court case.
She was released on bail of US$7.5 million by a court in Vancouver on Tuesday pending a US extradition hearing.
Her case has angered Beijing and shaken Canada’s relations with China, which is embroiled in a trade war with Washington.
“In this case, it is clear the Chinese government wants to put maximum pressure on the Canadian government,” Guy Saint-Jacques, the former Canadian ambassador to Beijing, said.
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland went on to criticize statements by US President Donald Trump, who said in an interview on Tuesday that he was ready to intervene in the Meng affair if it helped seal a trade deal with the world’s second-largest economy.
“Our extradition partners should not seek to politicize the extradition process or use it for ends other than the pursuit of justice and following the rule of law,” she said at a press conference.