Detainees Continued: Canadians in Dandong

August 6, 2014 7:00 AM

Yesterday, we provided an update on the three American citizens currently being held in North Korea. Now a related story is developing just across the DPRK border in Dandong, China, but with two Canadian citizens as the targets. Kevin and Julia Garratt have been living in China for decades, running a coffee shop in Dandong that is not far from the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge; the shop’s website is here. China’s Foreign Ministry said they were “suspected of collecting and stealing intelligence materials related to Chinese military targets and important Chinese national defence scientific research programs, and engaging in activities that endanger China’s national security.”

The story has three overlapping layers. The first, perhaps coincidental, is that their arrest comes a week after a contretemps between China and Canada over PLA hacking. Last week, the Canadian government went public with its own allegations about Chinese cyber-espionage, charging that PLA units identified earlier by the US had broken into the country’s National Research Council servers. Is this a case of Chinese tit-for-tat?

Possible, but the two other dimensions of the story have a more distinctly North Korean flavor. According to Washington Post coverage, Kevin Garratt had defined the objectives of his restaurant in more expansive terms than feeding travelers, saying “we’re China-based, we’re North Korea-focused, but we’re Jesus-centered.” In the deepest coverage so far, The Toronto Globe and Mail reports that the Garratt’s held religious services in their home but also traveled to North Korea frequently and worked with Canadian churches to raise funds for food aid and machinery for the country.

Their involvement with missionary work and Christian evangelism in the North is less clear, and the family deny that they were proselytizing, citing the risks. But the Garratt’s had been approached a number of times by Christian activists who assist Koreans in escaping the North and appeared to be either involved in—or at least knowledgeable—about what could only be described as a safe house for refugees. In any case, no organization or individual involved in such work is going to advertise it.

But the last piece is the most intriguing, and shows ongoing Chinese sensitivity about its relationship with North Korea. Both the Globe and Mail story and report that Mr. Garrett had been partial to photographing the flow of goods crossing over the Friendship Bridge from China over the years, including (surprise, surprise!) luxury cars. As we noted in a post back in 2012 (which includes some data), China has done little to restrict luxury exports to North Korea under UNSC Resolution 1718 sanctions, and had not even defined a sanctions list of what counted as luxury goods; in a useful piece for the Korea Economic Institute, Soo Kim outlines the role these goods play in sustaining the regime by buttressing elite loyalty. Revealing the content of China-DPRK trade may have been enough on its own to raise hackles, and if that trade were considered classified information, such photos could in themselves be stretched to fit the terms of the indictment.

Many things could be going on in this case, including the unlikely possibility that the Garratt’s are in fact working for or communicating with Canadian intelligence. We seriously doubt it. It sounds more likely that they ran afoul of Chinese concerns with respect to religious activities—currently under pressure in the country—and probably with China’s sensitivities with respect to North Korea as well. The most interesting question is whether there is a more direct North Korean role in this saga, given the cooperation that is known to exist between Chinese and North Korean security agencies. The Globe and Mail suggest that the Garratt’s had gained North Korea’s trust and had travelled there to deliver aid goods. Could that have changed?


Adam Cathcart

I think the North Korea angle in this case is, from Beijing's point of view, secondary to the larger China-Canada disputes. At least that is how it is being covered in the PRC: Huanqiu's main-page story yesterday (7 August) on the case focused almost solely on how it revealed disarray and impotence of the Harper cabinet. There is clearly more than a bit of venom that requires discharging. This Charles Burton piece, I think, gets to the heart of the matter. He writes, "the fact that the charges [of hacking PLA computers] are so blatantly false is part of the taunting message to our Prime Minister." However, the arrested couple's missionary work with DPRK is hardly being ignored by Chinese media, which is particularly receptive right now to any message that reinforces the idea that religious fundamentalism on the frontiers of any kind is to be watched, informed upon, and opposed. (See: Xinjiang.)

While it is still speculative, I like your point about sanctions evasion and China possibly expanding its indictment to include surveillance of goods across the Dandong bridge. Just another reason, I suppose, not to take pictures of border guards on either side of the Yalu. A relatively extensive Huanqiu Shibao piece includes analysis from Wang Qiang stating that foreign forces (including from Taiwan) have been able to move in under commercial fronts "due to economic growth happening too fast, with insufficient regulation," and enjoins all Chinese people to be more vigilant of such enterprises. The same article conveys an AFP analysis, but in characteristically Chinese way of talking about North Korea. The PRC's decision to shut down the cafe was also possibly done "为了帮好朋友除掉麻烦/in order to remove trouble for a friendly neighbor" (i.e., the DPRK) having problems with overzealous Christians. Funny, after all that attention to the DPRK needing to improve its environment for foreign investment along the frontier, now it's the Chinese side of the border's turn to look like a bad place to invest. And the Garrett's son was going to university in Dalian; arresting his parents is hardly going to work wonders for attracting the best and brightest from abroad. Apologies for the long comment; I found your post to be very constructive!


James Pearson at Reuters has uncovered yet another case on the Chinese side of the border. The Chinese have detained Peter Hahn, a naturalized US citizen who runs an NGO in Tumen. According to Pearson, “through his Tumen River Area Development Initiative (TRADI) NGO, [Hahn] operates several humanitarian projects and joint venture companies inside North Korea, including a local bus service in the Rajin-Songbon Special Economic Zone.” His open Christianity is likely an issue.

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff