One is an entrepreneur from Calgary with ties to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the other is an ex-diplomat with Canada’s Chinese embassy who has a passion for human rights and Chinese politics.
These are the two Canadian men who have been detained by Chinese authorities in the wake of the arrest of Huawei executive, Meng Wanzhou, in Vancouver. Meng was released on $10 million bail on Tuesday pending proceedings for extradition to the U.S., which has accused her of violating U.S. and EU trade sanctions on Iran.
China’s foreign ministry confirmed that Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig are being held, separately, over fears they were “endangering national security.” And former Canadian government officials see their detentions a retribution for Meng’s arrest.
Here’s what we know about them:
Michael Spavor is the founder of non-profit Paektu Cultural Exchange, based in China and Canada, that facilitates cross-cultural activities and tourism to North Korea. Spavor notably helped facilitate the meeting between Kim Jong Un and NBA player Dennis Rodman in 2013 and 2014.
“We hung out for three days,” Spavor, who speaks Korean with a northern accent, told Reuters in 2017. “That was the most amazing experience I’ve had in my life.”
Photographs and social media posts show Spavor yachting and drinking long island iced teas with the North Korean leader.
Spavor has lived in North Korea, a Chinese ally, and has cultivated a vast network there.
In 2016, he organized the Pyongyang International Friendship Ice Hockey Exhibition, a match between international and North Korean players. “Ever dreamt of participating in a one-off international sport exhibition in one of the most secretive states in the world, say North Korea?” states a post on Paektu Cultural Exchange’s Facebook page promoting the event. “PCE makes your dream a reality!”
Spavor was front and centre at a North Korean military parade this February.
Last week, Spavor shared his personal itinerary on Facebook, including meetings and a lecture in Seoul. He did not arrive there.
Paektu has also been promoting a five-day trip for 2019 New Year festivities in Pyongyang, including a visit to the demilitarized zone and the hot springs.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters on Wednesday that a Canadian had reached out to her department about being questioned by Chinese authorities. Freeland said her department eventually lost contact with the individual, later identified as Spavor.
The Globe and Mail reports that Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, the ex-diplomat also detained by China, know each other, but doesn’t say how.
Kovrig worked in the Canadian embassy in China from 2014 to 2016. Former Ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques told the National Post that Kovrig at the time was conducting detailed political reporting as part of a special Global Affairs program. Kovrig travelled extensively throughout China.
“But of course in China, the line between doing good political reporting and espionage can be very tiny,” Saint-Jacques told the newspaper.
In 2016, Kovrig worked as the lead for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to Hong Kong. He took a leave of absence for him diplomacy work that year, and eventually took a job as senior advisor on northeast Asia for NGO International Crisis Group, which has been operating in China for years. Chinese authorities said on Wednesday the group is operating illegally in the country — something ICG vehemently disputes, adding it’s the first time it is hearing of the allegation that it is violation of registration laws in China, despite working there for a decade.
StarMetro Vancouver journalist Joanna Chiu published an impassioned piece on Tuesday about Kovrig, with whom she was friends while they were both working in Beijing.
“Michael is emotionally very open,” Chiu wrote. “Many in his social circle knew that he struggled with his decision to take a leave of absence from work as a diplomat in 2016. He chose to do so because he didn’t want another posting somewhere else. He wanted to stay in China and keep learning more about the country.”
Cover image of Michael Kovrig (left) via Facebook and Michael Spavor via Twitter.