North Korea Fixer for Dennis Rodman Is Second Canadian Probed by China
(Bloomberg) -- A second Canadian national is being questioned by Chinese authorities, further heightening tensions between the two countries after the detention of a former diplomat in Beijing and the arrest of a Huawei Technologies Co. executive in Vancouver.
Michael Spavor was placed under investigation Monday for “suspected activities harming state security,” Northeast News, a website run by the propaganda department in the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning, said Thursday.
Spavor, who has for years escorted foreigners on trips to North Korea, including ex-basketball star Dennis Rodman, was being probed by the state security bureau in the border city of Dandong, the site said, citing authorities.
Canada’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which earlier identified Spavor as its second citizen under investigation, said the government has been unable to reestablish contact with him since he reported his questioning. “We are working very hard to ascertain his whereabouts and we have also raised this case with Chinese authorities,” Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters Wednesday in Ottawa.
Canada-China relations are being tested after China’s spy agency detained former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, on leave from the foreign service, Monday in Beijing. The move came nine days after Canada arrested Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou as part of an extradition effort by U.S. authorities.
Canada has asked to see the former envoy after it was informed by fax of his detention, according to a government official briefing reporters in Ottawa.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lu Kang said Thursday that the two men were “suspected of engaging in activities endangering national security,” without specifying whether their cases were linked. Lu said that the Canadian embassy had been notified that the two men were being held under “compulsory measures” and that their “legitimate rights and interests” were being upheld.
A day earlier, Lu implied that Kovrig, who works for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, may have been caught up in recent rule changes in China that affect non-profits operating in the country. Crisis Group wasn’t authorized to do work in China, Lu said, citing a 2017 law that subjects non-governmental organizations to stringent registration and reporting requirements.
Crisis Group said the remark was the first time the organization had faced such an accusation from the Chinese authorities in a decade of working with the country. The company closed its Beijing operations in December 2016 because of the new Chinese law, according to a statement. Kovrig was working out of the Hong Kong office.
The Trudeau government has distanced itself from Meng’s case, saying it couldn’t interfere with the courts, but was closely involved in advocating on Kovrig’s behalf.
Freeland, the foreign minister, declined to speculate on whether there was a connection between the Kovrig and Meng cases. Canadian Trade Minister Jim Carr also said Wednesday there was no indication the cases were related.
Both men belonged to a small community of foreign experts of China’s ties with North Korea, a subject of Kovrig’s research for Crisis Group. Spavor was one of the few Westerners who’ve traveled extensively in North Korea and helped run the Paektu Cultural Exchange, bringing foreigners including Rodman to meet with Kim Jong Un.
Spavor describes himself on Twitter as working in North Korea to facilitate “business, sport, culture & tourism projects to support development programs encouraging peace on the Korean Peninsula.” He tweeted on Dec. 9 that he was in the North Korean city of Sariwon and would be in Seoul on Monday. He never arrived.
Calls to Spavor’s contact numbers in China, as well as his North Korean number, went straight to voicemail. Spavor’s involvement was previously reported by the Globe and Mail.
Guy Saint-Jacques, who served as ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016 and worked with Kovrig, says the link was clear. “There’s no coincidence with China,” Saint-Jacques said.
“They couldn’t grab a Canadian diplomat because this would have created a major diplomatic incident,” he said of Kovrig. “Going after him I think was their way to send a message to the Canadian government and to put pressure.”
Meng’s successful bid to secure bail Tuesday didn’t appear to satisfy China. “The Canadian side should correct its mistakes and release Ms. Meng Wanzhou immediately,” said Lu, the foreign ministry spokesman.
The tension may force Canadian companies to reconsider travel to China, and executives traveling to the Asian country would need to exercise extra caution, said Andy Chan, managing partner at Miller Thomson LLP in Vaughan, Ontario.
“Canadian business needs to look at and balance the reasons for the travel” between the business case and the “current political environment,” Chan said by email. Chinese officials may subject business travelers to extra screening and in some case reject them from entering, he said.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.