Michael Kovrig and Spavor are spies, despite obfuscations of Canada's mainstream media

By Daniel Xie, William Dere & Aidan Jonah, The Canada Files, Sept. 6, 2021

On August 11, 2021, it was reported by Global Times that Canadian citizen, Michael Spavor, was sentenced to 11 years in prison after being convicted of espionage. Spavor was also ordered to be deported from China and have his personal property be confiscated by the government. This follows the initial conviction in June 2020 of Michael Spavor and his friend, Michael Kovrig, by the Chinese courts for undermining China’s national security.  

Kovrig was accused of entering China to steal sensitive information, while Spavor was accused of being a key source of intelligence for Kovrig.  

A subsequent article by Global Times on September 1st, 2021, reported that, according to a confidential source, Michael Spavor took photos and videos of Chinese military equipment on multiple occasions. These photos were subsequently sent illegally to various people outside of China, including Kovrig. The source further noted that “between 2017 and 2018, Kovrig entered China under the guise of a businessman and false pretext of commerce”. Using this false identity, Kovrig gathered a large amount of information related to China’s national security, and wrote analytical reports to be sent to the International Crisis Group. Contrary to popular belief, the ICG is not authorized to work in China as a legitimate NGO.  The judge has yet to reach a verdict on the trial of Michael Kovrig. 

The case of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, known collectively as the “Two Michaels”, has been linked to the current trial of Meng Wanzhou for supposedly circumventing US sanctions on Iran. This trial is going forward despite the violation of Meng Wanzhou’s charter rights, the dangerous precedent of extraterritoriality set by the US regarding the trial with regards to coercing its allies to impose American law on those wanted in the US, and the possibility that this trial was orchestrated at the behest of the US in order to deal a blow to Huawei’s global operations. China had previously made it clear that Meng Wanzhou’s freedom is necessary for any opportunity for the Two Michaels to be returned to Canada. 

The verdict given to Michael Spavor has led to condemnation from Canadian mainstream political parties, with Trudeau, Singh and O’Toole all vowing to put pressure on the Chinese government to secure the release of the Two Michaels. Singh painted the Two Michaels as victims of an autocratic government suppressing their rights, while the Conservatives vowed to weaken Canada’s trading agreements with China and ban Huawei from Canada's 5G infrastructure, while also advising universities against partnering with Chinese "state-controlled" companies. 

The painting of the Two Michaels as victims of an autocratic and opaque legal process is hypocritical, since espionage trials held in Canada are routinely held in secret.  For example, Canada has not released any information on the 2019 arrest and arraignment of Cameron Jay Ortis, a senior RCMP intelligence officer who was identified as a supposed source of Chinese intelligence by the United States.

Neither has the Canadian government released any transparent information about the arrest of Chinese Canadian naval engineer, Qing Quentin Huang from Hamilton. He was arrested and charged with spying for China, on December 1, 2013, for passing on information on Canada’s frigate program. According to Huang’s defense, “the warrant and the affidavit are so heavily censored that he (Huang) cannot test the validity of the warrant or make full answer and defense. The warrant and affidavit, as redacted, put Mr. Huang in an impossible position. Canada has since stayed two of the four murky charges against Huang.

This hypocritical depiction of the Chinese legal system as opaque, autocratic, and unfair, however, serves the needs of the Trudeau government and the parliamentary opposition parties who are all lining up for a second Cold War with China.


Tourism and Espionage: The Case of Michael Spavor 

Despite the Canadian government’s depiction of the Two Michaels as victims, a closer look at the case surrounding Spavor and Kovrig reveals, however, that they are not as innocent as the Canadian government and opposition parties would have us believe.

On September 3, 2021, investigative journalist Amy MacPherson posted a twitter thread examining the activities of Michael Spavor. MacPherson accused both the Conservatives and the NDP of fomenting misinformation about the Two Michaels. She notes that, despite how they framed the issue, there was something dubious about how the Two Michaels behaved that is easily searchable, but has been neglected by the media.

MacPherson notes, in her thread, that Spavor was involved with North Korean tourism, running Paektu Exchanges, a non-governmental organization promoting trade and tourism in North Korea. As the head of Paektu Exchanges, Spavor was able to make contact with the North Korean government through his own links with the Chinese and South Korean government, as well as North Korean politician and celebrity Hyon Song-Wol. Interestingly, Spavor set up his headquarters at the China-North Korea border, and was never charged for violating sanctions by the Canadian government. 

Through the ties he had cultivated with the North Korean government, MacPherson states, Spavor was able to facilitate the visits of Dennis Rodman, as well as Trump and John Bolton to North Korea. He also took part in the historic 2018 thaw between North and South Korea. In addition, Spavor also used his position as the head of Paektu Exchanges to take photos that were posted on Paektu Exchanges’ Instagram page. Some of these pictures include soldiers in military uniforms, scenes from a military parade in 2017 that initially “spooked Spavor out”, as well as photos of railroads being built in North Korea as part of China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative.

MacPherson also notes, in her thread, that Spavor and Kovrig were close friends and that one of the charges against Spavor was that he was engaged in sharing “second tier” intelligence with Kovrig through outlets such as Paektu Exchanges. 

While on the surface, Spavor’s arrest may appear at first glance to be a situation where a tourist agency head was arrested without cause by the Chinese government for taking photographs of seemingly innocuous pictures in North Korea, the role of Spavor’s photos taken through Paektu Exchanges becomes much dubious once his arrest is framed in the context of Kovrig’s role in the International Crisis Group, and the policies of that organization towards North Korea. 


The ICG and it’s Support of Global Regime Change Operations 

According to the International Crisis Group (ICG)’s website, Michael Kovrig has been a member of the ICG since 2017, as the Northeast Asia Advisor for the organization. Prior to that, he worked for the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was stationed in Hong Kong and Beijing from 2012 to 2016.

The ICG was first founded in 1995. Its initial seed funding was provided by George Soros and the Open Society Foundation, which continues to support it to this day. Soros has recently stated that “I consider Xi Jinping the most dangerous enemy of open societies in the world.” Further funding was secured for the ICG by former Finnish president Marti Ahtisaari (from the Social Democrats party) and former foreign minister of Australia Gareth Evans (from the Labor Party), the latter who provided $500,000 for the organization when it launched.

The ICG frames itself as working to prevent wars and maintain global stability. Yet, as exposed by both the Grayzone and the New Left Review, its policies in actuality have sought to enforce regime change and the expansion of NATO and other US-led alliances in Europe, the Middle East, and around the world.

The ICG itself receives funding from many NATO member states, Canada included. The New Left review, in an article by Tom Hazeldine titled The North Atlantic Counsel, notes that the ICG has played a key role in facilitating the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia as well as the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. 

In the 2010s, as noted by the Grayzone, the ICG also played a role in pushing the US to intervene in Syria during its civil war. In advancing the viewpoint that the US needed to intervene and remove Assad at all costs, the Grayzone reports that the ICG has promoted the viewpoints of salafist jihadis, such as Jabhat al-Nusra founder Mohammad al-Jolani, whitewashing their crimes and depicting them as supposed “freedom fighters” fighting for democracy against a supposedly dictatorial regime. This whitewashing allowed al-Jolani to be platformed by PBS (a liberal US news outlet) in June of 2021.

Even more recently, the ICG has sought to destabilize Ethiopia by supporting the secessionist Tigray People’s Liberation Force (TPLF) in Ethiopia, which has been backed by the West since the early 1990s. The TPLF has perpetrated atrocities, including violence against their own citizens, withholding aid from Tigrayans, using child soldiers, manipulating vulnerable refugees into acting as a victim in doctored propaganda films against the central Ethiopian government, and even stolen from USAID aid convoys

The above assertions come from a New Africa Institute (NAI) report titled “Disinformation in Tigray: Manufacturing Consent For a Secessionist War”, which provides firm evidence backing up their claims. The report also exposes the fact that ICG Analyst William Davison has openly collaborated with the TPLF and provided coaching to their leaders, and, after a violent TPLF secession attempt was put down in January 2021, attempted to mobilize support for not prosecuting secessionist TPLF leaders on the basis that they supposedly had internal support. The NAI report also reveals that Davison repeatedly spread misinformation to the point that the Ethiopian government chose to deport him from the country. 

The report further details how the ICG employs an active regime-change advocate, Dinesh Mahtani, who was forced to resign in disgrace from the UN in October 2014. He was a member of the Somalia Eritrea Monitoring Group, which monitored UN sanctions on Eritrea and “was caught using his position at the UN to influence and organize regime change operations in Eritrea, and met with projected transitional leaders.”

Ultimately, it is clear that, rather than function as an impartial advocate for global peace and stability, the ICG has actually proven itself to be a Western-backed force for instability and regime-change operations worldwide, going as far as to back violent jihadis and secessionists to accomplish US-led regime-change goals.


Michael Kovrig and ICG Regime Change operations in North Korea

Former Yugoslavia, Ethiopia, Iraq and Syria are not the only places targeted by the ICG’s regime change operations. According to Hazeldine in New Left Review, following the fall of Iraq in 2003, the ICG set its sights on Iran and North Korea, two of the countries depicted by Bush as part of an “Axis of Evil” along with Iraq. The ICG started targeting North Korea in May of 2003, when a Council on Foreign Relations task force, chaired by ICG founder Morton Abramowitz, developed a “phased negotiation strategy” with the goal of pressuring North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. This phased negotiation strategy gave North Korea a mere six months to surrender its nuclear program, or face greater sanctions, with even a potential invasion being planned if China and Japan were to cooperate.

As a member of the ICG’s Northeast Asia section, Kovrig views Chinese cooperation with western imperialist aims as key to facilitating regime change in North Korea. In a March 28, 2018, roundtable discussion on the website Chinafile pertaining to Kim Jong-Un’s visit to China, Kovrig notes that Kim’s visit to China and attempts to bolster relations, which had previously been strained due to China’s support of sanctions in the past, would disrupt any Western diplomatic cooperation with China vis-a-vis North Korea. Since then, the Chinese and North Korean governments have both sought to restore positive diplomatic ties with each other, with both governments hailing 70 years of friendship in 2019.

Kovrig’s writings on North Korea demonstrate that Kovrig adhered to the ICG’s mission of undermining the North Korean government and viewed the Chinese state’s compliance with Western regime change aims as necessary to facilitate regime change in North Korea. Unfortunately for Kovrig and the ICG, this compliance was thwarted by moves by both the Chinese and North Korean governments towards diplomatic rapprochement.

Given Spavor’s close ties with Kovrig and his leadership of Paektu Exchanges, which saw him posting sensitive photos such as soldiers in military uniforms, military vehicles, and Belt-and-Road infrastructure on social media, it’s very likely that China saw Spavor as a threat to national security.

From the Chinese government’s point of view, the ICG, whose goal is regime change in North Korea, could subject China to further encroachment and diplomatic isolation. Furthermore, Spavor’s posting of Belt-and-Road Initiative infrastructure, military personnel and equipment on social media could easily be seen by the Chinese government as an opportunity to be exploited by NATO in order to sabotage key BRI infrastructure or develop military responses to North Korea.

Considering that Spavor also passed on photos of military equipment from China to Kovrig, their actions could allow NATO and the West more broadly to exploit weaknesses in the Chinese military as well. Consequently, China understandably acted against Kovrig and Spavor to protect its national security, its ally in the region (North Korea), and the BRI from being undermined by the NATO-affiliated International Crisis Group.

More reading on the BRI:


Supposed victims, really spies 

Ultimately, despite the framing of the Canadian government and opposition parties of the Two Michaels as innocent victims of an authoritarian Chinese government, it is clear that the Chinese government had legitimate reasons to be suspicious of their activities in China and North Korea.  

Using his position as the head of a tourism company in North Korea that he set up, Spavor sent sensitive pictures of military hardware and BRI infrastructure in China and North Korea to the International Crisis Group employee Michael Kovrig. Kovrig had been employed since 2017 by the ICG, a group that’s been known to use human rights abusers and extremists in seeking to impose American-led regime change around the world; in this case, with North Korea and potentially China being their targets in Asia.

In whitewashing the actions of the two Michaels and the ICG, while keeping Meng imprisoned, the Canadian government has chosen to continue the escalation of the Second Cold War. This guarantees not only the worsening of geopolitical tensions and greater Sinophobia, but also a potential massive loss of jobs as Chinese companies such as Huawei are forced to leave Canada.  

In light of the revelations that the Two Michaels were indeed spies, and the fact that the charges against Meng herself are totally farcical, Canadians should demand both the freedom of Meng Wanzhou as requested by the Chinese government, irrespective of the fate of the Two Michaels. There is a clear need for a positive reset in relations between Canada and China under the rubric of a new and independent foreign policy for Canada. 


Daniel Xie is a firm anti-imperialist, who is a member of Climate Justice Toronto. He serves as the Associate Editor of The Canada Files.

William Dere is the author of the award-winning “Being Chinese in Canada, The Struggle for Identity, Redress and Belonging.” (Douglas & McIntyre, 2019). He was a political organizer and a leading activist in the 2-decade movement for redress of the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act.

Aidan Jonah is the Editor-in-Chief of The Canada Files, a socialist, anti-imperialist news site founded in 2019. He has written about Canadian imperialism, federal politics, and left-wing resistance to colonialism across the world. He is a third-year Bachelor of Journalism student at Ryerson University, who was the Head of Communications and Community Engagement for Etobicoke North NDP Candidate Naiima Farah in the 2019 Federal Election.


Posted Sept. 28, 2021