Arrest of Rodman’s North Korea Guide Hikes Canada-China Tension

(Bloomberg) -- Michael Spavor built a career linking the West with Asia. Now he’s stuck in the middle of an escalating diplomatic feud.

A Canadian who runs tours and exchanges in North Korea for clients including basketball icon Dennis Rodman, Spavor was seized Monday by authorities in the Chinese border city of Dandong, where he spent much of his time. His case comes amid brewing fallout from U.S. efforts to extradite a top Huawei Technologies Co. executive, Meng Wanzhou, who Canadian police arrested in Vancouver on Dec. 1 on a American request.

Spavor’s capture came on a day he’d planned to travel to Seoul, and after he’d reached out to Canadian authorities about strange questioning from the Chinese. He was detained before the Canadians could make contact.

The tour operator joins Michael Kovrig, a diplomat on leave from Canada’s foreign service who has written about the North Korean nuclear crisis, in being investigated by China for “potentially engaging in activities that harm China’s state security,” a foreign ministry spokesman said Thursday in Beijing.

While Meng is out on bail and has been visited by Chinese consular officials, the Canadians say they’re still seeking access to Spavor and Kovrig, who was also taken into custody Monday. Analysts see the two arrests as apparent retaliation for the Huawei case, though neither China nor Canada have directly linked the two cases.

Alberta Native

Spavor has regularly escorted foreigners on trips to North Korea through the Paektu Cultural Exchange. One such tour was due to leave this month from Dandong, which the Canadian describes as “the main gateway to North Korea for business, trade and travel.” Spavor has also introduced some of his guests to Kim Jong Un and once shared a photo of himself and the North Korean leader during a 2013 meeting aboard a yacht.

A native of the oil-rich western province of Alberta, Spavor studied at the University of Calgary and then in South Korea, according to a biography posted to the Paektu website. He spent over 20 years working in the Korean peninsula, and first visited North Korea in 2001, it said. He organized Rodman’s visits in 2013 and 2014. He’s fluent in Korean, English and French, the biography said.

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.” In a Facebook post, he indicated he’d spend the week in the South Korean capital, but he never arrived there.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said he reached out to Canada before his arrest.

“We are aware of a Canadian who got in touch with us because he was being asked questions by Chinese authorities. We have not been able to make contact with him since he let us know about this,” Freeland told reporters Wednesday evening in Ottawa, shortly before the Globe and Mail newspaper revealed Spavor was that individual. China and Canada have since confirmed his arrest.

In a briefing Thursday, China declined to say if the Spavor and Kovrig cases were linked. “These two persons are all suspected of engaging in activities that harm China’s state security,” spokesman Lu Kang said. “Both of them are still under investigation.”

Lu declined to say if the arrests were prompted by Meng’s detention, if the men were being given access to a lawyer, when they would be formally charged or when they might be released. The spokesman also declined to say whether both men’s work on Korean issues was a factor.

Canada said it received notification, by fax, on Wednesday evening in China of Kovrig’s detention but still hadn’t confirmed Spavor’s status at that time. Canada’s foreign ministry confirmed his capture in China in a statement Thursday afternoon.

As news spread of Spavor’s plight, concern mounted for his well-being, as friends posted messages of support. “We’re just simply hoping for good news about Michael,” one friend, Todd Sample, told Bloomberg on Thursday. A relative in Canada declined to comment.

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