Free Michael Spavor
My Friend Languishes in a Chinese Prison
In a dark way, we all expected the news. And yet when it came, it still made his friends and family flinch, and shake our heads at the calculated evil of the international gamesmanship waged by the Chinese government.
It made us pray even more for Michael.
Michael Spavor, a Canadian citizen who has spent years on the Korean Peninsula, becoming fluent in its language and warming to its everyday people, has been sentenced by a Chinese court to 11 years in prison.
Being in the wrong place at the wrong time, living out his dream as an adventurer abroad, only to be snatched off the street in the border city of Dandong by Chinese security thugs whose government was looking to even a perverse political score.
Michael was kidnapped in late 2018, less than two weeks after police in Vancouver arrested Chinese telecom executive Meng Wanzhou at the urging of U.S. prosecutors, who suspect her of committing fraud in connection to her role as the chief financial officer of the Chinese tech giant Huawei.
Since then, Michael and another Canadian citizen, former diplomat Michael Kovrig, have been held separately in secret Chinese jail cells, denied access to families, consulate officials and even their lawyers, according to press reports.
The detentions of the so-called two Michaels has been denounced as political hostage-taking, these two humans being used as political bargaining chips.
I first met Michael in 2010, long before he became a news headline and a political prisoner, and before he launched his intriguing journey over the DMZ and into North Korea.
I was a foreign correspondent for the LA Times, based in Seoul, and Michael, a Canadian expat who hung out in my beer-drinking crowd, was precisely the kind of character I wanted to get to know.
Michael knew things about the Korean peninsula. He’d been around, knew how things worked. He was like a young scholar who bought his share of rounds. I remember one time I visited the humble little house he rented on some back street in Seoul.
The place was historically relevant in some way and Michael wanted to rebuild those parts to keep its integrity. He was doing all of this with his own money of course.
Michael now 46, grew up in a Calgary suburb and was like a lot of expats who ended up in Seoul. They were smarter than their peers, ambitious in a way that didn’t involve Ivy schools and working for large corporations.
In a 2013 article in Maclean’s magazine, Michael said he first became intrigued by North Korea during a short stay in Seoul in the 1990s. He was flipping through the Lonely Planet travel guide and stumbled across the section on the DPRK — “just a little sliver in the back,” he recalls. “It was the most interesting part of the whole book.”
He eventually lived in Pyongyang for six months in 2005, working as a teacher at a school affiliated with a Vancouver-based NGO. He’s been in and out of the DPRK ever since, developing key contacts in the regime along the way, becoming something unique — a foreigner the North Koreans could trust.
During his time living in Pyongyang, Michael told Maclean’s, he was able to observe “regular, everyday life” — people going to work, young couples walking hand-in-hand, vibrant markets. “I met a lot of really beautiful people — so sweet,” he said. “It was contrary to what I’d heard, that they were cold. You hear about this mysterious, unfriendly place.”
One reason for his success is that he speaks the North Korean dialect — a more formal variant of that spoken in Seoul the southern, and was so fluent that he fooled people on the phone. That ability to break the language barrier helped make international headlines by facilitating the visit to Pyongyang by former NBA star Dennis Rodman to meet North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un.
“I organized it,” Michael told Maclean’s. “It was a blast.”
He was also working officials in North Korea’s ministry of sport to set up a hockey exchange between North Korea and Canada.
Two years ago, I wrote a short piece about Michael for “Free Michael Spavor,” a website established by his family.
Michael was a risk-taker and raised eyes at his daring to cross the border into what we in Seoul all called the Hermit Kingdom.
But as I wrote, “That’s the kind of guy Michael Spavor is. There’s a swagger there, a sense of boundless adventure, but there’s also this innocence and empathy. I remember questioning, to myself, his trips to North Korea but I believe in Michael and supported him. This was Michael Spavor; he knew what he was doing.
I still believe that. Along with pictures of Michael with the likes of Dennis Rodman, there are a million more pictures of Michael posing with common North Koreans.”
At the time, I had hoped that Michael might soon be freed.
“I am positive that this chapter will soon come to an end and that he will be a free man again, and all those people who know and respect him will be applauding him once again. And buying him beers, many beers.”
And then came Tuesday and that terrible news.
Michael’s fate has influenced my own future.
I have family in Beijing and have long planned to return there as a writer and journalist.
I don’t want to be in jeopardy of being plucked off the street and placed in jail every time Beijing needs an American pawn in its worsening relations with the West.
Because that’s what my friend Michael Spavor has become. This brilliant, funny, down-to-earth humanitarian has been relegated to the role of minor board piece in a dangerous game of international chess.
And if it can happen to Michael, it can happen to anyone.
Tonight, I will say a prayer that China’s powers-that-be come to their senses.
And Free Michael Spavor.
John M. Glionna is a writer and journalist based in Sin City.