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Michael Spavor

Canadian businessman

Michael Spavor
Spavor in 2010
Born1976 (age 44–45)[1]
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Michael Peter Todd Spavor (born 1976) is a Canadian consultant who has worked extensively in North Korea. He is the director and founding member of Paektu Cultural Exchange, a NGO that facilitates sports, cultural, tourism and business exchanges involving North Korea.[2][3][4]

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, along with Michael Kovrig, by Chinese officials.[5] Donald Clarke of the George Washington University interprets the arrest as retaliation for Canada's arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.[6] On August 10, 2021, Spavor was sentenced to 11 years in prison for espionage.[7] On September 24, 2021, Spavor was released after the dropping of Meng Wanzhou's extradition request as part of her deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.[8]


Michael Spavor was born in Toronto, Ontario. 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.[9] Spavor is fluent in Korean, including the North Korean dialect,[10] and French.[9]

Spavor's ties with North Korea go back to at least 2001,[10] 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 American defector James Joseph Dresnok in Pyongyang.[11] 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.[12]

In South Korea, Spavor attended Kangwon National University and worked for the Korea Tourism Organization and Seoul Tourism Organization. He also was a council member of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch from 2010 to 2013, giving lectures and leading cultural excursions.[13] He gained attention for restoring and living in a hanok in Bugahyeon-dong in western Seoul,[14] and appeared in a music video for the K-pop group SES.[15]

From 2010 to 2013 Spavor worked for the Pyongyang Project, a Canadian non-profit that organized educational exchanges in North Koreans and provided scholarships for North Korean students overseas, and in 2015 he founded Paektu Cultural Exchange.[16]

Spavor has strong personal ties with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.[10] 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 the city of Wonsan. Spavor later organized Rodman's 2014 visit.[17][18] Spavor has been involved in the financial development of Wonsan, which is a high priority for Kim Jong-un, who has invested at least $150 million into the city.[10]

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.[19]

In March 2016 Spavor organized the Pyongyang International Friendship Ice Hockey Exhibition (PIFIHE), bringing around 20 foreign hockey players[20] to North Korea, including two Canadian residents of South Korea, for a series of games and other workshop events.[21]

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.[22]

Outside of sports exchanges, Spavor also played a role in the restoration of the Ryongwang Pavilion in Pyongyang, spending four years on the project alongside the Prince Claus Fund and North Korea's National Administration for the Protection of Cultural Heritage.[23]

Spavor is often consulted by analysts and journalists for insights into North Korea.[10] He has, however, been reluctant to comment on politics and human rights in North Korea.[2]

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 turned into an escalating diplomatic row between the two countries.[10]

Spavor and Kovrig were reportedly 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.[24] China allowed three consular visits as of February 1, 2019.[25] During Spavor's detention, his friends noticed suspicious activity on his social media accounts, leading them to believe Chinese interrogators were accessing his accounts.[26]

In mid-December 2018, a GoFundMe campaign was started to raise funds for Spavor to help with any legal and travel costs following his release,[27] but three weeks later on January 7, 2019, the crowdfunding platform terminated the campaign.[28] Though the campaign had raised C$14,000 before being terminated, GoFundMe gave less than $500 to the designated beneficiary (Spavor's brother).[29] Though GoFundMe did not give an explanation, Spavor's friend speculated the reason might be Spavor's past promotion of tourism in North Korea, a country under US sanctions.[29]

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".[30] Friends describe Spavor as "only pursuing his love for Korea"[31] 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".[32]

In the lead-up to the first high-level diplomatic talks between Chinese officials and American officials working for Joe Biden, Spavor's trial date was announced. On March 19, 2021, a two-hour closed court hearing for Spavor ended with no immediate verdict and Dandong Intermediate people's court stating that it would set a date to release a decision later. Because the case involved Chinese national security law, the chargé d'affaires at the Canadian Embassy in China was denied entry to provide consular assistance. Diplomats from the United States, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Australia, Sweden and Germany also sought access but were denied.[33]

On August 10, 2021, a Chinese court sentenced Spavor to 11 years in prison and said that he would be deported, though it was unclear when.[7] With Meng Wanzhou's case dropped, Spavor was released shortly after on September 24, 2021.[8]


  1. ^ Pollard, Martin Quin; Pollard, Martin Quin; Ljunggren, David; Ljunggren, David; Scherer, Steve; Scherer, Steve (March 19, 2021). "Trudeau condemns Canadian's trial held behind closed doors in China". Reuters.
  2. ^ a b "Michael Spavor: The detained Canadian close to Kim Jong-un". BBC News. December 13, 2018. Retrieved December 18, 2018.
  3. ^ News, Bloomberg (September 26, 2021). "Huawei CFO gets hero's welcome; Canadians land quietly". National Post. Retrieved September 30, 2021.
  4. ^ "Cocktails with Kim Jong Un: the Canadian jailed in China for spying". France 24. August 11, 2021. Retrieved September 30, 2021.
  5. ^ 北朝鮮交流事業のマイケル・スパバ氏 中国でのVIP待遇から一転スパイ罪(1/2). KoreaWorldTimes (in Japanese). June 30, 2020. Retrieved July 5, 2020.
  6. ^ Clarke, Donald (December 17, 2018). "China is holding two Canadians as hostages. It's not even denying it". The Washington Post. Retrieved February 24, 2019.
  7. ^ a b Crossley, Gabriel (August 10, 2021). "Chinese Court Convicts Canadian Michael Spavor on Charge of Espionage". Reuters. Retrieved August 10, 2021.
  8. ^ a b "China releases detained Canadians Kovrig, Spavor after extradition against Meng Wanzhou dropped". September 24, 2021.
  9. ^ a b "About PCE - DPRK Academic Exchanges | DPRK Cultural Exchange | DPRK Investments". Paektuculturalexchange.org. Retrieved February 8, 2018.
  10. ^ a b c d e f Smith, Josh; Ljunggren, David (December 13, 2018). "Detained in China: Canadian businessman known for ties to North Korean leader". Reuters. Retrieved December 18, 2018.
  11. ^ Michael Spavor. "Interview with the late Joe Dresnok's two sons about their father's death and legacy. (And my chance meeting with him) | the Paektu blog". Paektuculturalexchange.org. Retrieved February 8, 2018.
  12. ^ Michael Spavor. "PART 3: FINDING FUJIMOTO: How Fujimoto and I first met | the Paektu blog". Paektuculturalexchange.org. Retrieved February 8, 2018.
  13. ^ An, Sonjae (2013). "2013 COUNCIL THE KOREA BRANCH OF THE ROYAL ASIATIC SOCIETY". Transactions. 88: 4.
  14. ^ "Hanok, built by nature". G-Korea (2). Arirang. January 16, 2010. Retrieved October 6, 2020.
  15. ^ Carruth, David (July 2010). "North of the Border" (10). 10 Magazine. Retrieved October 6, 2020.
  16. ^ Lee, Jeong-ho (December 14, 2018). "DEC 14 2018 TRANSLATING CHINA POLITICS He built a career on North Korea. Now China's come for him". Retrieved May 9, 2019.
  17. ^ Fifield, Anna (March 25, 2017). "North Korea's leader is a lot of things – but irrational is not one of them". The Washington Post. Retrieved February 8, 2018.
  18. ^ "The Canadian behind Dennis Rodman's travels in North Korea". Macleans.ca. December 1, 2013. Retrieved February 8, 2018.
  19. ^ Mark Paul (January 22, 2016). "Paddy Power's Pyongyang problem". Irishtimes.com. Retrieved February 8, 2018.
  20. ^ Dunbar, Jon (March 21, 2016). "Ideological barrier melts down with skating, shooting and body checks". The Korea Times. Retrieved May 9, 2019.
  21. ^ Dunbar, Jon (March 3, 2016). "Canadian brings hockey to North Korea". The Korea Times. Retrieved May 9, 2019.
  22. ^ Cheng, Eun-Young Jeong and Jonathan (February 15, 2018). "At the Olympics, It's Not Just North Koreans Rooting for North Korea" – via www.wsj.com.
  23. ^ "4-Day Pyongyang, Mass Games, Trade Fair, DMZ & Film Festival Tour". Paektu Cultural Exchange. Retrieved October 6, 2020.
  24. ^ Vanderklippe, Nathan (April 10, 2019). "Two Canadians detained in China for four months prevented from going outside, official says". Retrieved May 9, 2019.
  25. ^ "Detained Canadian Michael Spavor gets third consular visit in China". February 1, 2019. Retrieved May 9, 2019.
  26. ^ Hotham, Oliver (January 2, 2019). "DPRK consultant's social media activity hints at invasive Chinese interrogation". Retrieved May 9, 2019.
  27. ^ Small, Kaylen (December 18, 2018). "GoFundMe campaign created for Michael Spavor, Canadian detained in China". Retrieved May 9, 2019.
  28. ^ Bronskill, Jim (January 7, 2019). "Friend worried about detained Canadian after fundraising effort shut down".
  29. ^ a b "GoFundMe pulls campaign for Michael Spavor, detained Canadian, after thousands raised". The Globe and Mail. January 6, 2019.
  30. ^ Berlinger, Joshua (December 13, 2018). "Second Canadian detained in China as diplomatic spat intensifies". CNN. Retrieved December 18, 2018.
  31. ^ Dunbar, Jon (December 20, 2018). "China, release our friend". The Korea Times. Retrieved May 9, 2019.
  32. ^ Zwetsloot, Jacco (December 30, 2018). "My life at a Korean law firm (part 44)". The Korea Times. Retrieved May 9, 2019.
  33. ^ "Michael Spavor's trial in China ends without a ruling". CBC News. Thomson Reuters. March 18, 2021. Retrieved March 19, 2021.

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