Update at 1735 KST: This article has been updated periodically throughout the day to reflect the developing news.
A prominent consultant on North Korean business issues has been under investigation by Chinese authorities since Monday for engaging in activities that jeopardize the country’s national security, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) was reported to have confirmed on Thursday.
The state-run Northeast News said earlier in the day that Spavor was “under investigation by the Bureau of State Security of Dandong, Liaoning province as of December 10, 2018” on suspicion of “engaging in activities that endangered China’s national security” – claims later reported confirmed by the Chinese foreign ministry.
Sources on Wednesday confirmed to NK News that Michael Spavor, a Canadian citizen who was due to arrive in Seoul on Monday, never arrived at his destination.
He was set to attend a lecture in Seoul at the Royal Asiatic Society on Tuesday night, according to a post he made on social media.
Spavor is a well-known figure within the DPRK-watching community, with his privately-run NGO Paektu Cultural Exchange (PCE) frequently bringing delegations in-country to examine business opportunities in North Korea.
He is believed to be one of the few Westerners to have met DPRK leader Kim Jong Un, and was instrumental in organizing a 2015 trip to North Korea by former NBA hall-of-famer Dennis Rodman – as well as other sports exchanges.
It is unclear whether Spavor’s disappearance is linked to his North Korea work, with the news following revelations earlier this week about the detention in China of former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig.
Kovrig, who was on unpaid leave from Global Affairs Canada and working as an advisor to the International Crisis Group (ICG) NGO, is reported to have been detained by China’s State Security Bureau on suspicion of engaging in activities that “harmed China’s national security.”
It is unclear, however, whether the cases are linked: Kovrig’s detention is widely believed to represent Chinese retaliation for the detention by Canadian authorities two weeks ago of senior Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland hinted at knowledge of Spavor’s disappearance at a press conference on Wednesday, though did not name him, instead saying a citizen had been in touch on Monday to say they had been questioned by Chinese authorities.
“We have not been able to make contact with him since he let us know about this,” Freeland said. “We are working very hard to ascertain his whereabouts and we have also raised this case with the Chinese authorities.”
“We are in touch with his family.”
Canada’s government later on Wednesday confirmed that it was aware of Spavor’s disappearance.
“We are aware that a Canadian citizen, Mr. Michael Spavor, is presently missing in China,” a statement shared on social media by Katie Simpson, a correspondent with CBC News, reads.
“We are working hard to ascertain his whereabouts and we continue to raise this with the Chinese government.”
One close friend and former mentor to Spavor said Thursday that he was shocked by the news.
“I think the Chinese are trying to exercise scare tactics,” said Andrei Lankov, a director of NK News.
“They want to send a signal that they don’t want outsiders in China to deal with North Korea. They took somebody harmless, poorly protected, definitely innocent of espionage, and relatively well-known.”
Describing Spavor as a “harmless, charismatic, and charming guy with little interest in politics,” Lankov said “what Spavor did was clearly marginal and as non-political as possible.”
Edited by Chad O’Carroll
Featured image: KCNA