Unusual activity on the social media of a North Korea-focused consultant currently detained in China has raised fears that authorities may be conducting a potentially invasive investigation into his life and work.
Accounts on several social media platforms run by Michael Spavor – a Canadian with ties to Pyongyang, reported detained in China in mid-December – have reported their owner online several times in past weeks, suggesting they are being accessed by PRC authorities.
Among the platforms seemingly breached by Chinese interrogators include Facebook, Instagram, and Viber, with the latter showing Spavor having been online as recently as December 29.
One friend of Spavor’s told NK News she first noticed the unusual activity just over a week after his arrest.
“About ten days ago after the detention, Michael’s profile on Facebook messenger had been active for a few hours until shortly before 5pm China time,” said Tereza Novotna, a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow at Free University Berlin.
“It felt very strange seeing him active online, a little confusing and creepy at the same time, as if seeing a ghost,” she continued. “My first thought was – OMG, what happened to him? How could anyone have gotten access to it?”
“It is pretty clear that (access took place) during incarceration, it can hardly be Michael himself playing around with his smartphone.”
One expert said Chinese authorities had likely coerced Spavor into allowing access to the accounts.
“Authoritarian governments like China don’t hesitate to systematically violate the rights of persons they identify as opponents, and that means violating the right to privacy by cracking all the various social media and internet communication apps the person uses,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch‘s Asia division.
“In some instances, we’ve seen people abused and tortured to force them to give up their passwords while in other cases, government officials use hacking to get access,” he continued.
“I don’t for an instant believe that Spavor would be given access to the internet while in Chinese detention, so Beijing has to answer for these intrusions to his privacy.”
The Chinese government declined to respond directly to inquiries about the unusual activity, instead referring NK News to previous government comments on Spavor’s detention.
For its part, the Canadian government did not respond to request for comment as of the time of publication.
The news of Spavor’s detention first broke on December 13, when the 43-year-old Dandong-based consultant failed to show up to an event he had planned to attend in Seoul, South Korea.
It was then reported he 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 confirmed by the Chinese foreign ministry.
He is one of two Canadian citizens to have been detained by Chinese authorities last month, in arrests widely seen as a retaliation to the detention by Canadian authorities on December 1 of senior Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
The other is Michael Kovrig: a former diplomat now working as an advisor to the International Crisis Group (ICG) NGO who is also under investigation for engaging in activities that “harmed China’s national security.”
Canada’s foreign minister Chrystia Freeland has called for the “immediate” release of the two men, saying they have been “detained arbitrarily.”
Canada’s ambassador to China John McCallum was reported to have met Spavor just days after his detention on December 14, though it is unclear whether further consular access has since been granted.
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.
Friends of Spavor have in the weeks following his shock arrest set up a page on the crowdfunded Go Fund Me website, aimed at raising money to help with legal and other costs potentially incurred during his detention.
Additional reporting by Chad O’Carroll
Featured image: Michael Spavor’s social media