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Were the two Michaels actually spies?
It’s tough to say for sure, but Kovrig and Spavor’s profiles are quite a bit spooky
The Canadian media was unanimous in expressing its jubilation last week with the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, our “Two Michaels”, from Chinese imprisonment.
The People’s Republic was roundly denounced for carrying out “hostage diplomacy” because the arrests of Kovrig and Spavor occurred mere days after Canada arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou. Meng’s arrest was at the behest of the U.S. for allegedly circumventing sanctions on Iran, which the Trump administration had ratcheted up after pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal for no discernable reason. The Two Michaels were released shortly after Meng struck a deal with U.S. prosecutors.
The allegations against Meng were widely depicted as a logical part of the Trump administration’s escalation of sanctions with Iran. The Chinese government’s claims —that the Michaels were engaged in espionage— were dismissed outright by most commentators, however.
For what it’s worth, I adhere to the I.F. Stone maxim of “all government lie,” which includes the Chinese government, as well as our own.
The Global Times, a Chinese state media tabloid whose claims should generally be taken with a grain of salt, reported details on the allegations against the Michaels:
Spavor, who was sentenced in August to 11 years in prison for espionage and illegal provision of China's state secrets to foreign entities, was found to have taken photos and videos of Chinese military equipment on multiple occasions and illegally provided some of those photos to people outside China. He also had personal property of 50,000 yuan ($7,700) confiscated and will be expelled.
The photos and videos Spavor took during his stay in China have been identified as second-tier state secrets.
Spavor was a key informant of Kovrig and provided him with information over a long period. Sources told the Global Times that from 2017 to 2018, Kovrig entered China under the disguise of the forged identity of a businessman and had collected a large amount of information on China's national security through his contacts in Beijing, Shanghai and Jilin in Northeast China.
As has been reported in the Canadian and international media, Spavor is an entrepreneur who ran the Paektu Cultural Exchange, which promotes tourism and economic development in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Spavor, who is fluent in Korean, reportedly has quite a close relationship with North Korean President Kim Jong-Un, having arranged former NBA superstar Dennis Rodman’s infamous visits to North Korea. Spavor is likely the only Canadian to have been pictured with Kim several times.
This proximity to the leadership of one of the most isolated countries in the world would make him a highly-valuable intelligence asset.
Kovrig, whose trial wrapped in March and was awaiting a verdict as he was released, is a former diplomat who has been stationed in Beijing, Hong Kong and at the United Nations in New York. He works for the International Crisis Group, where he has taken a keen interest in Chinese-North Korean relations.
Is it possible or even likely that Spavor provided intelligence on the nature of China's relationship with North Korea? Without examining the Chinese state’s evidence, we can’t know for certain— but it’s definitely within the realm of possibility.
There’s been a lot of hand wringing about the secrecy of the Michaels’ trials, but as pointed out a few weeks ago in the Canada Files, the Canadian trials of alleged Chinese spies Qing Quentin Huang and Jay Ortis similarly lacked transparency.
Curiously, CSIS — Canada’s spy agency — took to Twitter to welcome the Michaels back to Canada, which is at the very least poor optics for two Canadians accused of being spooks.
This is likely why CSIS followed up 15 minutes later with a tweet clarifying that the agency merely “joins all Canadians” in welcoming them home.
One also has to wonder why Kovrig and Spavor’s detention became such a nationalist rallying cry while there remain 115 other Canadians in Chinese prisons, including Robert Schellenberg, who is sitting on death row. The timing of the Michaels’ arrests is no doubt a factor, but Schellenberg’s death sentence was upheld not even two months ago, with relatively little outcry.
The world of spycraft is by definition one of smoke and mirrors. We’ll likely never know whether the Chinese government’s allegations against Kovrig and Spavor are true.
But we’re being disingenuous — and needlessly provocative on the world stage — if we assume the Chinese state, in an irrational act of vengeance, simply fabricated these allegations out of thin air.
In other news …
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took his family on vacation to Tofino, B.C., rather than visit Indigenous communities on the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
The Prime Minister’s Office told the CBC that he spoke to residential school survivors over the phone for several hours Thursday.
But Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir of Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, located near the site of the former Kamloops residential school where the remains of 215 Indigenous children were uncovered in May, said she extended two written invitations to Trudeau to visit the nation Thursday.
"This is a government that has said Indigenous people are [the] most important priority for the government and that action … does not match the words," Native Women’s Association of Canada CEO Lynne Groulx told the Ceeb.
Riots at a prison with 9,000 inmates in Guayaquil, Ecuador, left 119 inmates dead, five of whom were beheaded, in what is being described as a power struggle between rival gangs in an overcrowded prison system.
From the Washington Post: Inmates crawled through holes between wards, using smuggled Glocks, knives and machetes in their fight for control of the prison. Sounds of gunshots and explosions rent the air as inmates climbed onto the prison’s rooftops.
Guayaquil is also, incidentally, the location of Ecuador’s largest port. While Ecuador is not itself a producer of cocaine, it is sandwiched between Peru and Columbia — the world’s two largest producers of the drug.
Ecuadorian gang Los Choneros — a key contact for Mexican cartels — has in recent years splintered into rival gangs, who are fighting for control over the Ecuadorian prison system.
Edited by Joel Laforest