Michael Spavor at Myohyangsan, 17 August 2010
Michael Peter Todd Spavor is a Canadian consultant who has worked extensively in North Korea. He is director of Paektu Cultural Exchange, an organization that promotes investment and tourism in North Korea.
In December 2018, while he was living and working in Dandong on the Chinese side of the China–North Korea border, Spavor was taken into custody by Chinese officials. His arrest is widely interpreted by the Canadian press as retaliation for Canada's arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
Michael Spavor was born in Calgary, Alberta. He has a degree from the University of Calgary in International Relations, focusing on the Korean Peninsula and East Asian Studies, and has studied International Trade and Political Science at Kangwon National University in South Korea. Spavor is fluent in Korean, including the North Korean dialect, and French.
Spavor's ties with North Korea go back to at least 2001, when he first visited the country. In 2005, he became the managing director of a Vancouver-based NGO and spent six months working as a teacher at an affiliated school in Pyongyang. In the same year, he met James Joseph Dresnok in Pyongyang. Spavor is friends with Kenji Fujimoto, Kim Jong-il's Japanese former sushi chef, whom he first met in Japan in early 2016 and again in April 2016.
In 2010 Spavor and Matthew Reichel co-founded the Pyongyang Project, a Canadian non-profit promoting peace and dialogue between North Koreans and Westerners, and in 2015 he founded Paektu Cultural Exchange.
Spavor is best known for his strong personal ties with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. In September 2013, Spavor facilitated the second visit of Dennis Rodman to North Korea and became one of the few Westerners to have met Kim while in Wonsan. He later organized Rodman's 2014 visit. Spavor has been involved in the financial development of Wonsan, which is a high priority for Kim Jong-un, with a total of $150 million.
Paektu Cultural Exchange
In January 2016, Spavor and Paektu Cultural Exchange sought a European Order for Payment against the betting company Paddy Power for failing to fulfill their contractual obligations after they pulled sponsorship for a basketball event to be held in North Korea.
In March 2016 Spavor organized Pyongyang International Friendship Ice Hockey Exhibition (PIFIHE), bringing around 20 foreign hockey players to North Korea, including two Canadian residents of South Korea, for a series of games and other workshop events.
In 2017, during a qualifying match between the North and South Korean women's ice hockey teams for the 2018 Winter Olympics, Spavor was assaulted by South Korean security officials as he tried to display the North Korean flag.
Detention in China
In December 2018, China detained Spavor and Michael Kovrig, another Canadian national, on charges of endangering state security. The arrests came shortly after Canada had arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei, in what is becoming an escalating diplomatic row between the two countries.
Spavor and Kovrig are reported to be held in isolation without being allowed outdoors, kept under lighting and surveillance 24 hours a day, with 6 to 8 hours of interrogations per day. China has allowed three consular visits as of February 1, 2019. During Spavor's detention, his friends noticed suspicious activity on his social media accounts, leading them to believe Chinese interrogators were accessing his accounts.
A GoFundMe campaign was started to raise funds for Spavor to help with any legal and travel costs following his release, but after it reached $10,000 Canadian the crowdfunding platform terminated the campaign without notice or explanation. The campaign was reinstated later.
Andrei Lankov, an expert on North Korea, expressed surprise over Spavor's arrest in this "hostage game", saying that Spavor "is from very humble origins [and] definitely not the son of a CEO of a major Canadian company". Friends describe Spavor as "only pursuing his love for Korea" and "not really interested in politics... more passionate about things on a smaller scale ― people-to-people interactions, and friendship among citizens of different countries, regardless of geopolitical climate or issues."
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