MY FRIEND MICHAEL

(This story originally appeared in the Korea Times on December 30, 2018)

by Jacco Zwetsloot

This week a slight diversion from, but one that dovetails with, my life story. I'm going to write about my Canadian friend Michael Spavor, whose situation I am concerned about, because he is an unwilling guest of the Chinese government. Spavor was arrested on his way catch a flight from Dalian Airport on Monday, Dec. 10. 

He was scheduled to visit Seoul for some meetings, and to attend a lecture at the Royal Asiatic Society, where he had once lectured on his experiences in North Korea. When he did not turn up, his friends were not immediately worried. But on Wednesday evening when a friend told me that Spavor was still out of touch, I began calling and texting around to try to get some information. Nobody had seen nor heard from him since early Monday.

On Thursday morning the Canadian government announced that a second citizen was under arrest in China (in addition to Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat and head of the International Crisis Group's Beijing office). 

Later in the day Michael Spavor's name was confirmed, and then came the news that he would be charged with "threatening state security." It is unclear at this stage what the specifics of that charge are, nor what evidence the Chinese government might bring against him, but I am, to put it mildly, highly skeptical. Here's the Spavor I know and miss:

In March 2008, not long after I started working at KOIS (now KOCIS), I was introduced by a mutual friend to an energetic and enthusiastic Canadian man. Like me, Michael Spavor also first came to Korea in the late 1990s, had an interest in North Korea, and had worked as an English teacher. Despite our similar ages, backgrounds and interest, somehow our paths had never crossed, but when I heard there was a man in South Korea who had lived in Pyongyang, we had to meet. 

He picked me up from outside the KOIS office and we went to get to know one another over lunch. He told me about his first trip to North Korea as a tourist in the early 2000s with a Beijing-based, British-run tour company, and how that visit made him determined to go there for a longer time, and not as a tourist. 

He went on to relate how he had joined a Canadian charity to work in Pyongyang teaching English to North Korean university students. He recounted tales about driving around Pyongyang in a charity-owned vehicle (including one trip right up to the Juche Tower), practicing his Korean with North Koreans of all walks of life, living in a dormitory (as opposed to on a diplomatic compound, where most foreigners live), and the foul-smelling cigarettes (which may or may not have contained something more potent than tobacco) that room painters smoked on their breaks.

After just six months there his term ended, and he returned eventually to South Korea, ultimately studying on a scholarship at a university in Gangwon Province. This is what he was doing when we first met, but he wanted to live and work in Seoul. I helped him find a job at the Seoul Tourism Organization. 

In 2010 we traveled to the North. I had quit KOCIS on Friday August 13, and that night Spavor, two other friends and I flew to Shenyang. The next morning we received our visas and flew to Pyongyang, where we joined a much larger group for a week-long tour. I had just finished working on propaganda for one Korea and ended up surrounded by the propaganda of the other. 

It was an extraordinary experience, and during that week I felt a cocktail of human emotions, not all of them pleasant. Spavor, on the other hand, was in his element. His love for the people and the land of both sides of Korea is always evident. He has an easy charm and a charisma that draw people in despite language barriers.

In Seoul, he was famous for bringing one group to a bar and then introducing himself to people at other tables, and somehow bringing the two together. On our trip to North Korea, it was his idea to bring bags of candy to give to small children so they would interact with us. He also brought an instant camera with us to give printed photos to people we met. It was clear that he was itching for an opportunity to come back and do something more meaningful than simply travel.

The next year, Michael announced plans to move to northeast China permanently to work for an NGO fostering cultural and academic exchanges with North Korea. This would enable him to make regular visits to North Korea. 

Talking to him before his big move and on subsequent trips to Seoul, Spavor was not really interested in politics. He was 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. Sometimes we butted heads about his approach and perspective, but he stuck to his guns, and I came to admire his tenacity and good intentions.

Later, he started his own little company in Yanji to carry on the same work. He was involved in Dennis Rodman's second and third trips to North Korea, and was famously photographed with the basketball player and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2013. 

Spavor might be accused of naivete and even adventurism, but a threat to state security he is not. I echo the sentiments of my friend Jon Dunbar in his recent piece for this newspaper's print edition when I expressed the hope that Spavor would be treated well and fairly, and that his detention at the hands of the People's Republic of China would soon end. 

Free Michael Spavor