Two Canadians who until last week were running a coffee shop on the China/North Korea border are being detained by the Chinese government for suspected theft of military intelligence and threats to national security, according to China’s Foreign Ministry.
Vancouver couple Kevin Garrett and Julia Dawn Garratt opened Peter’s Coffeehouse Dandong, Liaoning province, a gateway city to North Korea, in 2008, after years spent as teachers in the southern part of China beginning in 1984, according numerous reports now coming in from U.S. and Canadian news sources.
Their coffee shop was a popular spot among Western tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of North Korea. It served western-style food, a fairly traditional Western coffee menu and hosted programs such as the “English Corner,” a study group led by Mrs. Garratt that helped people learn English. The Garratts pitched the cafe as a kind of tour information center:
Peter’s Coffee House is a place where you can enjoy great food and coffee in a relaxing and friendly atmosphere. Only meters from the border of North Korea and Dandong’s Friendship Bridge, it is the perfect stop off while en route to or returning from the Hermit Kingdom.
Gaining 5 years experience doing business in Dandong feel free to ask for any advice regarding the best places to stay in the city. We also can help you organise a trip over the border. Just ask.
The Garratt’s oldest son, Simeon, has told numerous news outlets that the charges of international espionage are “absurd,” and that the Garratts were upstanding, law-abiding expatriates. The short report from an official Chinese news agency Xinhua shares only the following: “Two Canadian nationals are under investigation for suspected theft of state secrets about China’s military and national defense research;” and, “the State Security Bureau of Dandong City, northeast China’s Liaoning Province, is now investigating the case in accordance with law.”
Family members of the Garratts, including their three children, say that have not been able to contact the Garratts since early last week.
While many people who know the Garratts personally are saying the detainment must be some kind of misunderstanding, the news is troubling to some international affairs experts, for numerous reasons. Examples of foreign citizens being charged in suspicion of holding state secrets in China is extremely rare and obviously serious; the location as a crossroads between China and isolated North Korea adds tension; and China is providing very little information about the detainment, the rights of the Garratts and what might constitute a “state secret.”
Charles Burton, a university professor who was a Canadian diplomat in Beijing in the 2000s, told Vancouver’s Globe and Mail that these kinds of charges are “completely unprecedented,” adding that they came less than a week after Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made headlines accusing the Chinese government of a cyber-attack involving hacking into the computers of an Ottowa scientific research agency.
“Certainly the Harper government very explicitly and unambiguously indicated that the people that stole secrets were from China, that was something new,” Burton told the Globe and Mail. “They explicitly outed the Chinese and the Chinese clearly don’t like that.”