Michael Kovrig's work in China 'legitimate' despite new spy claims, former ambassador says

Retired envoy Guy Saint-Jacques said he’s deeply dismayed by spying allegations reportedly levelled by Michael Spavor against Michael Kovrig

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A former Canadian diplomat the Chinese government held in jail for almost three years was definitely not acting as a spy when he met with another Canadian also imprisoned by Beijing, says the ex-ambassador to China who hired diplomat Michael Kovrig.

What’s more, Canadian businessman Michael Spavor would have been under close watch by Beijing regardless of his contacts with Kovrig — because the Chinese were jealous of his tight relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, said retired envoy Guy Saint-Jacques Monday.

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Saint-Jacques, Canadian ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016, said he’s deeply dismayed by the allegations reportedly levelled by Spavor, who according to the Globe and Mail is demanding a multi-million-dollar compensation package from the federal government.

“The work of Michael Kovrig was completely open, completely legitimate,” he said in an interview. “Hearing what Spavor had to say, I find this baffling…. It’s unfortunate that Spavor and his lawyer are putting this kind of pressure on the government.”

Now, said Saint-Jacques, what he described as inaccurate information has played into China’s hands, giving them an excuse for what in fact were arbitrary, cruel detentions. In fact, in responding to the report, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa has already accused Canada of hypocrisy.

Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor meet Justin Trudeau
Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, right, were greeted by Justin Trudeau after nearly three years of detention in China. Photo by Justin Trudeau / Twitter

Both men were seized by the Chinese days after Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in 2018 under a U.S. extradition request. Many analysts say their detention was a form of hostage diplomacy or retribution. The “two Michaels” were held in spartan conditions for nearly three years, released in 2021 immediately after Meng — who lived on bail at one of her Vancouver mansions during the same period – was freed under a deal with American prosecutors.

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According to the Globe report, attributed to two unnamed sources, Spavor is alleging that China arrested the pair because – unbeknownst to the businessman — Kovrig was acting as an intelligence operative, and his reports on their conversations ended up with intelligence agencies in Ottawa and Canada’s “five eyes” partners.

The story also mentioned that Kovrig was part of the foreign service’s Global Security Reporting Program (GSRP).

But Saint-Jacques said there is an important difference between what Kovrig did and the work of spies, who use coercion, compromising information, money or other means to convince a source to provide information secretly.

Kovrig acted completely overtly and as a Mandarin-speaking Western diplomat would have been closely watched by the Chinese security services, his phones likely bugged and emails and texts monitored. “And Michael Kovrig was fully aware of this.”

Indeed, Saint-Jacques told National Post four years ago that Kovrig had met with Spavor a number of times — both as a Canadian diplomat and in his subsequent job with the International Crisis Group think tank – to discuss Spavor’s work in North Korea.

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Michael Spavor and Kim Jong-un
In this 2014 photo released by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency, Michael Spavor is shown behind North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Photo by Korean Central News Agency

Spavor also seemed transparent about their connections until shortly before the arrests. In 2018, he posted on his Facebook page a South China Morning Post article about trade with North Korea that quoted both men, highlighting Kovrig’s comments.

As for the GSRP, it is simply a branch of Global Affairs Canada that focuses political officers’ work on the issues of greatest importance to Canada, not an intelligence outfit, said Saint-Jacques.

China’s system is so opaque that a report by a skilled diplomat such as Kovrig could well have been circulated among intelligence organizations in Ottawa and beyond — but that doesn’t mean the information was collected by spying, he said.

Saint-Jacques said there is a reason, however, why Spavor would have been closely watched by Beijing – and at the top of the list to be grabbed when it was seeking Canadian hostages.

His cross-cultural tour company – Paektu Cultural Exchange – arranged business, academic, sporting and tourist trips into North Korea, including a controversial visit by former NBA star Dennis Rodman. In the course of that work, he developed uniquely close ties with Kim, once spending time with the leader on his yacht. Spavor was based in the Chinese border city of Dandong.

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“China has only one formal alliance and it is with North Korea. They consider North Korea as their back yard. Here was a foreigner, and a Canadian no less, who had a special relationship with Kim Jong-Un,” said the former ambassador.

“Neither the Chinese ambassador in Pyongyang nor any other Chinese official had similar access to Kim…. They were envious, jealous of Spavor.”

In fact, Kim and Chinese president Xi Jinping had a rocky relationship at the time, with the North Korean taking actions that were seen as disrespectful of Xi, said Saint-Jacques.

“On top of that, here’s a Canadian who goes spending weekends with Kim Jong-Un on his boat…. It’s very rare for any diplomat to have such access.”

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