Strange Brew: Canadian Coffee Shop Owners Accused of Spying on North Korea-China Border

The World
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Aug. 5 2014 5:37 PM

Canadian Coffee Shop Owners Accused of Spying on North Korea-China Border

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The Yalu River, separating China and North Korea, seen from Dandong.

Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

In an odd case, a Canadian couple is being investigated for espionage by Chinese authorities. According to Xinhua news agency, Kevin Garratt and Julia Dawn Garratt ran Peter’s Coffee House in Dandong, China, just across the Yalu River from North Korea. Outspoken Christian activists, the Garratts have lived in China for about 30 years. Their son, who lives in Canada, described the accusations as “wildly absurd.” Their current whereabouts are unknown.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

As the South China Morning Post reports, Kevin Garratt has been quite open about “trying to reach North Korea with God, with Jesus, and practical assistance,” and catered to travelers to and from the country as well as foreign journalists and local Christians. According to Canada’s Globe and Mail, “several cafes have in recent years been opened in cities near the border by people with missionary support and a desire to evangelize to North Koreans.”

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The charges against the Garratts—“stealing state secrets on China’s military and national defense research”—are vague, but the timing is interesting. The investigation comes just a week after the Canadian government publicly accused China of hacking into its main research and technology agency. The Chinese embassy described the accusation as “groundless.”

China has also launched a recent crackdown against Christianity, pulling down crucifixes and issuing demolition notices to more than 100 churches since early spring. (The sign on the storefront for the Garratts’ café includes a subtle cross.) Christianity is growing rapidly in China—it’s on pace to become the largest Christian country in the world soon—but unregulated ministry has made the government very nervous.

North Korea is, of course, even more hostile to Christianity. Relations between Pyongyang and the West are also at a low ebb thanks in part, improbably, to an upcoming Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy about a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un. Two detained American tourists were also recently put on trial in North Korea for unspecified charges.

Relations between China and North Korea have been strained for a while. At the moment, Kim Jong-un’s government is reportedly irritated by deepening ties between China and South Korea.

It makes sense, then, that the North Koreans would want the Garratts shut down. What’s less clear—despite China’s antipathy to Christianity—is why China would make an effort in this case to help North Korea.

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