CHINA, RELEASE OUR FRIEND

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

By Jon Dunbar

Last week, I was looking forward to seeing my friend Michael Spavor in Seoul again. He tagged over 50 people in a Facebook post saying he would be visiting from Dandong, a Chinese border city with North Korea. 

He failed to show up at the Royal Asiatic Society lecture on Dec. 11, disappointing many friends. But it wasn't until a day later that we started to really worry. 

By Thursday morning our time, it was in the news that Canada's foreign ministry acknowledged he was being held by Chinese State Security, taken in on the same day as Canadian ex-diplomat Michael Kovrig, both accused of endangering Chinese national security. This comes shortly after Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, at the request of the U.S., for allegedly violating sanctions on Iran. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has condemned the "unlawful detention" of the Canadians ― now three ― which many say is political retaliation for Meng's arrest. I see no other reason for it. 

Who is Michael Spavor, the Canadian who calls Kim Jong-un a friend? As someone in the sensitive business of working with North Korea, his story is his own to tell. But as he can't speak for himself now and people's imaginations run wild, I want to impress on you his sincerity, his legitimacy and his effectiveness in engaging North Korea. He is no agent for any government or ideology, and is only pursuing his love for Korea. 

Born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, Michael got to experience sports diplomacy firsthand at a formative age at the 1988 Winter Olympics, the same year Seoul hosted the Summer Olympics. Taking advantage of the Alberta-Gangwon Province sister province tie, he attended Kangwon University in Chuncheon on a generous scholarship. After that, he fixed up an old hanok ― the oldest in Bukahyeon-dong ― and lived there until moving to China. He pursues his interests with vigor and fearlessness, going beyond frontiers whenever possible. 

I met Michael at a house party in Seoul, sometime around 2007 or 2008. When I heard he lived in Pyongyang for six months in 2005, I remarked, "That must have been boring." To my surprise, he said it was the best time of his life, and soon everyone was gathered around listening to his tales of life in North Korea's capital. He presented a different side of North Korea, one that existed on the same physical plane as us and was filled with real life human beings. He made it clear he wanted to return, but at the same time he wasn't an idealist or apologist for North Korea. 

Over time I got to know him as a guy who has two settings: super professional, always able to put on a diplomatic face, and super mirthful, never taking life too seriously. 

In 2010, he asked around among his friends to join him on a visit to North Korea. The timing worked for me and I was able to go. Despite Michael's cheery attitude at returning to North Korea, I suffered anxiety which lasted until we finally landed at Pyongyang International Airport and I saw what Michael saw in the North for myself. 

I recall during a bus ride near Nampo, northwest of Pyongyang, Michael gazing out at an otherwise unremarkable farming village and expressing his fascination with what their lifestyle must be, wishing he could experience its simplicity for himself.

Also on that trip, late one night at the Yanggakdo Hotel brewpub we met a fellow traveler who kept in touch with Michael. Through this connection, Michael served as an interpreter during Dennis Rodman's second and third North Korea visits in 2013 and 2014, meeting Kim Jong-un face-to-face both times. 

He later complained to me that the international media focused on the sensational side of Rodman's visits while failing to see other results, such as their visit to a German-run NGO working with deaf North Koreans, as well as the widespread public approval in North Korea for Kim Jong-un's newfound friendship with Rodman. He had connections with the North Korean government, but he cherished contact with North Koreans from all levels of society. 

Michael founded Paektu Cultural Exchange (PCE), an NGO specializing in culture and sports exchanges with the North. He organized many other sports exchanges which didn't match the hype of Rodman's visits, and he also carried out many other programs, such as the restoration of the Ryongwang Pavilion in Pyongyang with funds from the Dutch Royal Family's Prince Claus Fund. It didn't make him rich, but allowed him to build his livelihood around pursuing his fascination with North Korea. He lived in Yanji to be closer to North Korea and North Koreans, then Dandong, from where he told me he could look out his window and see people in North Korea. 

His cultural delegations to the North were different from the better-known tour packages. He could open doors off-limits to others, and his briefing sessions held in China prior to tours informed visitors what to expect and how to act. His advice was mostly to relax, be respectful and don't be afraid. 

In September this year, I joined him for the second time. I was once again nervous about going, this time due to my association with The Korea Times, but Michael assured me it would not be a problem as long as I wasn't visiting in any official capacity. I feared if I wrote any articles for this paper about my experiences it would cause him trouble with his North Korean contact, but he encouraged me to write something anyway. I published three articles in close consultation with him to avoid any problems. 

But it turns out it wasn't North Korea we needed to worry about. It's a bitter irony that it would be China detaining him, while he was en route to South, not North, Korea. 

As the main travel route into North Korea is through China, it's unlikely he will keep his business going as before. After Michael is freed from this unjust, unproductive detention, he faces the risks of deportation and loss of property, not to mention being virtually cut off from the North. Friends of Michael have created a crowd-funding campaign to support him after release, covering any legal, medical or transportation costs he may have. Visit gofundme.com/michaelspavor to learn more or make a donation.

Building peace on the Korean Peninsula will take high-level diplomacy with all the regional stakeholders ― both Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S. ― but it also needs more people just like Michael, playing their own small roles. 

Jon Dunbar (jon_dunbar@hotmail.com) is a copy editor at The Korea Times. 

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