Two Canadians detained in 2018 and charged with spying in China were released from harsh prison conditions and returned home on Saturday, ending a bitter three-year diplomatic row.
Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was returning from Vancouver to Shenzhen on Saturday as the two Canadians – Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig – were released from prison after what analysts called “hostage diplomacy.”
Michael Spavor is a Korean who speaks Korean fluently and whose connections in Pyongyang are at the top.
He has focused on bringing foreign companies to North Korea – which is the subject of several rounds of sanctions for its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs – and is one of a handful of Westerners. who met Kim Jong Un after the leader inherited power in 2011.
Spavor was pictured sitting next to Kim, sharing cigarettes and cocktails, aboard the North Korean leader’s private yacht.
For years, Spavor, now in his 40s, was based in the Chinese city of Dandong, on the border with North Korea.
He was arrested in 2018, and Chinese prosecutors subsequently charged him with “espionage and illegal provision of state secrets (to third parties).”
He told AFP prior to his detention that he was receiving requests from investors interested in market research and “a face-to-face connection with potential DPRK ministries and future partners” to find out when sanctions will be lifted.
Originally from Calgary, Alberta, Spavor was first intrigued by North Korea during a short stay in Seoul in the late 1990s. He also lived in Pyongyang in 2005 while working for an NGO. Canadian.
He is now fluent in Korean – with a distinct Nordic accent.
Michael Spavor’s brother Paul told reporters during an awareness march in Canada that in prison his brother “spends a lot of his time reading, meditating, doing yoga.”
After being sentenced to 11 years in August, Spavor conveyed a brief message to the outside world through embassy officials that he was “in a good mood.”
“I want to go home,” he said.
Michael Kovrig is a former Canadian diplomat who was working as a senior adviser for the International Crisis Group think tank when he was arrested along with Spavor in December 2018.
He was charged with espionage in May 2019, but no verdict was announced after his closed-door trial in March
Kovrig’s employer said he was based in Hong Kong and regularly invited to the mainland by Chinese officials, and could not be considered hostile to China.
At first, he was held in a cell with about 20 detainees in Beijing, another former Canadian diplomat in China told AFP, and allowed out for 15 minutes a day.
His wife Vina Nadjibulla told AFP in December last year that songs and books supported him during the harsh detention.
She said he continued to be “mentally and physically strong and doing everything possible to maintain his positive state of mind.”
In the first weeks after Kovrig’s arrest even books were turned down and at one point his reading glasses were seized.
Kovrig has since sent in requests for books on philosophy, his wife said, as well as “biographies of other people who have had these kinds of experiences.”
During a virtual consular visit with Canadian officials in October, Kovrig boss Robert Malley told Canadian media he said he was unmoved about filing a late report.
A fan of Leonard Cohen and Sisters of Mercy, he also sang to help pass the time.
“He’s a huge music fan and he knows a lot of lyrics by heart and I think that helps him,” Nadjibulla said at the time.
According to her, he tried to get some exercise by walking 7,000 steps a day around his cell, which was only three by three meters.