CALGARY—When Shaun Driver first heard his friend Michael Spavor had been detained by Chinese authorities, his first reaction was shock — then, a sense of “helplessness.”
“You start to think about what he’s potentially going through, what if anything can be done from the other side of the world to help facilitate the matter,” Driver said.
Driver, a lawyer practising in Vancouver, met Calgary-born Spavor in 2011 on an academic exchange to North Korea. Spavor runs an organization called Paektu Cultural Exchange, which organizes business, cultural and tourism trips to North Korea, and has worked as a consultant in the region for years.
Since then, the two have met a few times and have kept in touch, Driver said. The last time they saw each other was earlier this year, he said, praising Spavor’s compassion and magnetic personality.
“I was always impressed. He fits the ideal of what I think a typical Canadian is,” Driver said. “It’s one that’s inclusive, one that believes if you meet people and you understand people and their differences, you can then start to appreciate how to move forward and find common ground.”
Spavor is the second Canadian detained in China this past week. He was seized on Monday by Chinese authorities in the border city, Dandong. Spavor and diplomat Michael Kovrig were detained amid fallout from efforts by the United States to extradite Meng Wanzhou, a Huawei Technologies executive arrested in Vancouver on Dec. 1.
Canadian officials were able to meet with Kovrig earlier on Friday.
“Canadian consular officials continue to provide consular services to (Kovrig) and his family and will continue to seek further access to Mr. Kovrig. Due to the provisions of the Privacy Act, no further information can be disclosed,” said Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Guillaume Berube in an emailed statement.
“Canada continues to press for consular access to Michael Spavor.”
According to Global Affairs’ statement, Kovrig was detained on Monday before consular access was granted on Friday. The purpose of these meetings is to assess the well-being of Kovrig and Spavor, clarify the nature of their detention while providing guidance on the country’s legal process, and to act as a communication link between them and their loved ones.
Spavor’s biography on Paektu’s website says he’s been organizing specialized visits to North Korea since 2005. This has included academic trips, media groups and even professional athletes and celebrities.
Most notably, Spavor organized former NBA star Dennis Rodman’s trips to meet the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, in 2013 and 2014. Spavor’s bio also touts his high-level contacts with government ministries and organizations in the region.
Before this, Spavor studied international relations at the University of Calgary.
What also impressed Driver about Spavor was how he facilitated connections between people at a grassroots level, regardless of what political divisions existed between their home countries. The thought that Spavor could be detained because of his role surprised Driver.
“How does an individual who could not be associated with being a national security threat for anyone, who’s really just about connecting people, be considered a national security threat?” Driver said.
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the arrests “unlawful,” also suggesting the U.S. would help work toward their release.
Andrew Jeffrey is a reporter/photographer for StarMetro Calgary. Follow him on Twitter: @andrew_jeffrey