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 Canada.com 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?