By Jeff J. Brown
On December 1, 2018, Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested, at the behest of the United States government, at the Vancouver Airport by Canadian authorities on trumped up fraud charges involving Iran. She ended up being under house arrest for 1,028 days, whereupon she was freed on September 24, 2021, to return home as a national hero and to rapturous, popular applause.
During her long incarceration, there was moral outrage among the Chinese Nation that the whole ordeal was nothing more than extortion to punish Huawei and extract information from it; the country’s people calling it a kidnapping and imprisonment of a hostage. Many non-Chinese around the world agreed, while Uncle Sam’s imperial ambitions did not pan out.
On December 10, 2018, two Canadian citizens were arrested in China, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, later getting coined the moniker, the Two Michaels. The Chinese government charged them with espionage, whereupon they went to trial. On August 11, 2021, Spavor was sentenced by the court to eleven years’ imprisonment, all his assets in China seized (50,000 renminbi) and eventual deportation for spying, with Kovrig’s court case continuing.
There was the usual, greater-than-thou moral outrage in the West, as Beijing was accused of cynically and calculatedly taking them into custody in response to Meng’s apprehension, to use as pawns in a potential swap. The Two Michaels were celebrities and national heroes and still are, especially when they were sent back home on September 24, 2021, the same day as Meng’s release.
This confirmed in the minds of most Canadians that the Two Michaels were in fact arrested as pieces on the geopolitical chessboard, and that the charges they were spies were bogus.
However, that is not true. The Two Michaels were very guilty of espionage against the Chinese and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK-North Korea) states, as this exposé will show.
One claim the West very likely got right about the arrest of the Two Michaels is that Beijing did apprehend them as leverage for Meng Wanzhou. When dealing with Uncle Sam, the world’s self-appointed imperial globocop, totally above international laws, it was a smart move. Balance. Ying and yang.
Just as probable is that the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS—its CIA) had all the information they needed on Kovrig and Spavor and were biding their time to see if any local citizens were cooperating. Since intelligence information was being transmitted across the DPRK border and beyond, we can surely assume its North Korean homologue, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, was also enjoying the show.
The fact that the Two Michaels’ espionage activities were second tier (as defined by Chinese sources), even amateurish, suggests having them in the field was not terribly worrying for either country. They definitely were not in league with super spies like Kim Philby and Aldrich Ames.
Western Empire Goes to Bat for Kovrig and Spavor
While the Two Michaels are relatively unknown outside Canada, this did not stop the Canadian establishment and mainstream media garnering support around the world—officially 58 countries. Hundreds from the who’s who of politics, diplomacy, academia and think tanks came out publicly to demand the immediate release of Kovrig and Spavor, for what the Canadian Prime Minister called “arbitrary detention.”
In the mosh pit of Western electoral politics, Canadian notables on both the Left and Right stood on their soapboxes, to lambast “authoritarian and opaque” China and their mistreatment behind bars. Soon after moving to the White House, President Joe Biden added to this propaganda optic, stating that “Human beings are not bartering chips,” which is a macabre hoot, considering Guantanamo’s torture prison and CIA black-ops rendition centers around the world.
In fact, the Two Michaels were, by all measures, well treated. They were allowed in-person and online ambassadorial and consular visits, phone calls and letters back home with family, were well fed, received good medical care, as well as having ample chances to read books and exercise. If only Western political prisoners, like Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning were so lucky.
Sorry, All Espionage Trials are “Opaque”
The other laughable Western accusation was that Kovrig’s and Spavor’s court trials were opaque since China did not allow Western witnesses to attend, to verify a “fair” trial. Since when are espionage cases open for all the world to witness? State secrets, intelligence procedures, agents identified and highly sensitive evidence are usually presented. Of course, no country is going to divulge this to foreign enemies. I could fill pages with examples of Western spy trials that never saw the light of day. This is not small claims court in Omaha, Nebraska.
A Purveyor of Color Revolutions
Michael Kovrig’s CV starts out in innocent fashion, according to his LinkedIn page. An English Literature diploma from the University of Toronto (1989-1994), he then studied French at Paris-Sorbonne University (1995). From there until 2001, Kovrig is a blank page, whereupon he went to New York’s Columbia University, obtaining a Master’s in International Affairs (2001-2003). He then dropped off the radar until receiving some training certificates at the United Nations and New York University (2006-2007). He immediately went to work for the UN Development Program (UNDP), mostly in Africa, but also Asia (2007-2010), then a short stint for the G8 and G20 summits (2010).
So far, so good. His educational and work experience could be that of many others who work in international development and relations.
But then he seems to have gone in a more geopolitical direction, while joining the Canadian Foreign Service, as Senior Desk Officer for its International Security Branch (2010-2012), where he coordinated a network of fellow diplomats in this sector, based in Ottawa. International security means guaranteeing the survival of one’s country, involving military intervention and treaties. Now that’s a job Zbigniew Brzezinski could cut his teeth on.
Kovrig apparently turned some heads, becoming in Beijing a Canadian Embassy First Secretary and Vice-Consul, higher than an entry-level attaché and below counselor and ambassador (2014-2016). In military ranking, it is the equivalent of lieutenant colonel, not a bad jump up. During this stint, he studied and became functional in Mandarin.
Rhodium Group and Atlantic Council
Then, in 2016, he seems to have become a China analyst with the Rhodium Group, which specializes in gun-for-hire research on China, India, energy and advanced economies. Rhodium’s big Sino-project is the Atlantic Council’s multi-year China Pathfinder project (https://chinapathfinder.org/). Interestingly, on Kovrig’s LinkedIn page for this gig, we only have the job title, Consultant on Geopolitical Risk, Government Relations and Strategic Communication (2016-present), but no entity. Trying to hide something, Michael?
Like the Atlantic Council? Bingo. With uber-rabid Cold War warrior directors like Henry Kissinger, Mark Esper (Secretary of Defense), David H. Petraeus (CIA Director), Michael Chertoff (Department of Homeland Security) and Generals Wesley Clark (Serbia/Kosovo command) and James Cartwright (Joint Chiefs of Staff), among scores more, including James Baker, Ashton Carter, Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, Colin Powell, William Perry, Condoleezza Rice and William Webster. Need I say more? Yikes, my head is spinning just writing this list. It is worse than a real-life Dr. Strangelove movie.
Kovrig Jumps into George Soros’s Lap
With mentorship and inspiration like that, it was not a big jump for Kovrig to become the International Crisis Group’s (ICG) top dog in Northeast Asia, meaning China and North Korea, starting in 2017.
ICG is not just another humdrum NGO. Founded in 1995 with money from George Soros and his color revolution cookie cutter, Open Society, ICG has been at the forefront of Western-backed subversion and sabotage across the planet.
Its ongoing funding is like a who’s who of the CIA’s storefront National Endowment for Democracy (NED): Carnegie, Koch, Ford, Luce, MacArthur and Rockefeller, among others, pumping millions of dollars annually into its many misdeeds. Not only that, but many NATO governments chip in as well. ICG’s directors include cross-pollinating and similar neo-liberal, ultra-hawk, fundamentalist directors as the Atlantic Council.
ICG cut its color revolution chops in Yugoslavia and, like the CIA’s Gene Sharp, hides behind the Orwellian doublespeak of “peaceful conflict resolution,” when, in fact, it means causing violent uprisings and government overthrows.
From there, you name it and ICG has been there: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, Syria and all across Latin America, Africa and Asia, seeming to target countries that have good relations and cooperative development with China. Where China goes, so does ICG. Lately, ICG has been helping destabilize Ethiopia and its Tigray region, a huge cooperator country with China, while also aiming to cause misery and suffering in adjacent Eritrea, a proud, independent, Cuban-styled socialist country.
Kovrig Plays a Poor James Bond in China
As the new ICG point man for the region (where he remains on their website), Kovrig moved to Hong Kong.
According to informed Chinese sources, Kovrig entered China 2017-2018 under the guise of a businessman and false pretext of commerce, all the while still getting his Canadian diplomat’s salary, as a government employee of Canada. Did he think that the very thorough Chinese MSS wasn’t watching him like an anti-imperial red hawk, starting in Hong Kong and every step of the way?
During his time in China, Kovrig traveled to Jilin, Shanghai, Beijing and other areas, using his associates (Chinese? Foreign?), to collect a cachet of national security-related information, writing analytical reports on it all and presumably sending it back home.
Equally egregious, the Canadian Embassy must have known that Beijing proposed a foreign NGO (FNGO) control law in 2015, which was available for the whole world to see online and comment on; whereupon it was passed by the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee on April 28, 2016. It is aptly named the Management of Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations Law, and its intention was to bring to heel the myriad CIA/MI6/DGSE/BND/Soros government-overthrowing window fronts used by the West to destroy its perceived enemy countries.
China had more than 7,000 FNGOs running amok around the country and the law was long overdue.
The law is very thorough and explicit, which can be studied here. Coming into force on January 1, 2017, ICG would not get past the color-revolution gate and did not apparently try to officially register under the new rules.
Working for counterrevolutionary ICG, Rhodium Group and getting paid by Ottawa, is this why Kovrig entered China from Hong Kong for two years, pretending to be a civilian Canadian businessman? I suspect MSS took a gander at ICG’s website, with Kovrig’s face smirking from afar.
Michael John Kovrig was a second tier James Bond. Nevertheless, he was still an anti-China spy and, as we shall see, anti-DPRK as well.
Michael Spavor was Kovrig’s Across-the-Yalu-River Partner in Crime
Fellow Canadian Michael Spavor’s story is much more colorful and entertaining. While Kovrig seems to have been taken in by the Atlantic Group’s anti-communist-socialist, pro-global-capitalist agenda, via his work with Rhodium Group, it is hard to fathom why Spavor would go down the same route, considering all that he had going for himself.
His interest in Korea started with a visit to Seoul in the late nineties, where he apparently was enthralled by the intrigue north of the 38th parallel.
According to his LinkedIn page, Spavor received a BS in International Relations at the University of Calgary (2002-2007). This overlapped with a research program in Political Science and International Trade, at Kangwon National University, in South Korea (2006-2008).
Through all this, Spavor went on to live in Pyongyang for six months in 2005, working as a teacher through the offices of a Canadian NGO. He then worked in Seoul as Deputy Director of the Korea Tourist Organization (2008-2010) and from there became Director of the Pyongyang Project, based in Yanji, Jilin Province, China, this city being the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture seat of government (2010- 2013). The NGO Pyongyang Project had just been set up as a vehicle for cross-cultural education and language programs between DPRK and Canada.
Spavor Bonds with NBA’s Dennis Rodman and Company…
It was here that Spavor’s Korean work became celebrated. Starting in January 2013, he began moonlighting in cross-border exchanges, bringing NBA star Dennis Rodman to meet leader Kim Jong-Un in DPRK, in September 2013. Irish millionaire Paddy Power’s billfold was enlisted to bankroll it all. Since then, Hall of Famer and five-time NBA champion Rodman has visited DPRK five times, while meeting with Kim three, even bringing a number of fellow roundball stars and Harlem Globetrotters to play friendly games with the North’s best.
Spavor was on a roll, also organizing visits by Canadian National Hockey League players to come for exhibition matches, as well as promoting DPRK’s first ski resort, Masik Pass, for international tourism. Spavor also helped with the North’s Olympic Committee plans and found the time to oversee restoration of Pyongyong’s 6th century Ryonggwang Pavillion, getting funding from the Dutch Royal Family’s Prince Claus Fund. Not only that, but he apparently helped facilitate official visits to the DPRK by then-President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
NGO Paektu Cultural Exchange
It is unclear when (its Facebook page was created in 2015 and its website is down), but Spavor founded his own NGO, Paektu Cultural Exchange, as a way to promote cross-border exchanges with DPRK, especially in trade and tourism. Sometimes written as the plural Exchanges, its Instagram page, still up and running, makes for excellent viewing. Naming his NGO with this moniker was a sure-fire way to win the hearts of all Koreans.
Mount Paektu is considered the birthplace of the Korean people, whereupon the legendary demigod founder, King Tangun, created the first Kingdom of Kojoson. To this day, Mount Paektu is an active, Heavenly Lake-filled volcano and an immensely popular tourist site, just across DPRK’s northern border from China.
It may seem odd that Spavor chose to set up shop in Dandong, China, right across the Yalu River, nonetheless it is not totally off the mark. He had already worked in Yanji, China, for Canadian NGO Pyongyang Project, so likely had perfected a good system to work in both countries. China offers much more access to the internet, and flights to DPRK usually transit through Beijing anyway. People all over the world who live and work on international borders do the crosstown commute, for variety and change of pace.
Dandong is a bustling trading city of 2.5 million, with the usual excellent Chinese infrastructure, public transportation and urban social life. It is connected by vehicle and train bridges across the narrow and shallow Yalu River with Sinuiju, having a more modest, small-town population of 350,000. Would you rather live in Topeka or Kansas City? Not only that, but Sinuiju is only 226 km by car to Pyongyang on DPRK’s very good highway system, about a 1.5-hour drive. While Yanji is the government seat of China’s Korean minority, all along the Chinese border live more than 2.5 million ethnic Koreans, both Chinese and from the North, thanks to one of the most porous commercial and trading borders anywhere. Call it the Yalu River Bazaar.
…And Then It All Went South—Pardon the Pun
Kovrig was truly in the proverbial catbird seat, the world was his kimchee oyster. The sky across the 38th parallel was the limit. So, what the hell happened to inspire Spavor to become a low-grade spy for empire?
Like his sidekick Kovrig, this Michael was reduced to taking photos of Korean military parades, along with Sino-Korean Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure projects.
A muckraking, Canadian investigative journalist, Amy MacPherson—a counterpart to American Greg Palast—did some good research on Spavor. In her long Twitter feed, there are photos Spavor took in DPRK of soldiers and a small military parade. Paektu Cultural Exchange’s Facebook page has a nice photo of a smiling army captain.
While it is never advisable to photograph anything military in any country, Spavor must have been trying to dig deeper than that to be accused of spying. While his and Kovrig’s trials were closed to the public, one tidbit was revealed in the Chinese media:
Spavor’s “research” involved wrapping mobile phones in plastic and rubber and burying them at the base of a particular tree on the bank of Yalu River.
Was this information picked up by a Chinese national subversive, who has surely been apprehended since 2018?
Clearly, Spavor was up to no good.
It would be much easier on the China side to expedite digital information via the internet and data clouds, than the relatively closed DPRK. As well, the fact that Spavor was living in Dandong and Kovrig was traveling in and out, all over China makes it very possible for them to rendezvous there and ferry digital files back to Hong Kong. Two Canadian businessmen meeting together would be quite normal and it has been reported that they were good friends.
With the Rason Special Economic Zone being a high development priority, also just inside the DPRK along the Chinese and Russian borders, Spavor was actively involved in its trade fairs. Given that China and Russia are the biggest investors, projects like that would be of special interest to ICG Northeast Asia Senior Adviser Kovrig.
Michael Peter Todd Spavor could have gone down in history as a daring uniter of DPRK with the rest of the world, having a laudatory epithet on his gravestone, as a citizen diplomat who made a positive difference for the lofty ideals of world peace. Instead, he decided to be a low-level, wannabe Keystone-cop spy.
Why? Was he compromised via imperial extortion, bribery or blackmail? We will probably never know.
A Look Back on the Bizarre Story of the Two Michaels
While Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou’s loss of freedom for nearly three years was an unjustified, imperial outrage, it is hard to feel too sorry for Kovrig and Spavor. They made foolish, real-life choices to spy for Western empire and got caught red-handed. Their 1,000 days behind bars in China can only elicit crocodile tears at best. Ditto any Chinese or Korean nationals who may have joined in their second-tier high crimes.
While Kovrig’s diplomat-turned-spook trajectory was more classic, Spavor destroying an amazing professional CV and life story leaves one speechless.
Originally published on Covert Action Magazine
Jeff J. Brown has lived and worked with the Chinese people for 16 years.
He is author of The China Trilogy, blogs and podcasts at China Rising Radio Sinoland, is the producer of China Tech News Flash!, and is the curator of the Bioweapon Truth Commission Global Online Library.
His forthcoming book, Faster than a Speeding Bullet—the Chinese People’s Unstoppable Socialist Dream for Global Leadership into the 22nd Century, will be released in 2021.
Jeff can be reached at: email@example.com.
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