Christian Couple Detained for Spying on China/North Korea Border

A boy looks up as he walks past the closed coffee shop owned by Canadian couple Kevin Garratt and Julia Dawn Garratt in Dandong, Liaoning province on August 5, 2014. Ben Blanchard/Reuters

A Canadian couple who ran a coffee shop near the border between China and North Korea is under investigation by the communist Chinese regime over the suspected theft of military secrets and allegations that they’re a national security threat.

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday they are investigating Kevin Garratt and Julia Dawn Garratt, both Canadian nationals. The State Security Bureau of Dandong City in China’s northeast Liaoning Province is now investigating the case, China’s Xinhua news agency reports. Neither Xinhua or the foreign ministry said whether the couple have been detained and their whereabouts are unknown.

"Kevin Garratt and his wife ... are suspected of collecting and stealing intelligence materials related to Chinese military targets and important Chinese national defense scientific research programs, and engaging in activities that endanger China's national security," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Simeon Garratt, 27, one of the couple’s three children, described his parents to the BBC as “normal, kind, loving people.” While it’s unusual for Westerners to work and live Dandong, the Garratts, who ran Peter’s Coffee Shop in the city, were apparently well known and popular within the community. Simeon Garratt said no one has heard from his parents since they went out for dinner with friends on Monday night and their phones have been turned off ever since.

Simeon Garratt called the claims against his parents “wildly absurd” in an interview with the South China Morning Post, who refer to the couple as “Christian activists”. The newspaper notes that the “t” in the coffee shop’s sign resembles a crucifix, set against the backdrop of what they believe is a stained glass window, implying this signage is proof of a religious motive for the Chinese government’s action.

The couple also have a daughter, Hannah, and another son, Peter, 21, whom the coffee shop is named after, the Globe and Mail report.

The Garratts have been living in China since 1984 and opened their cafe in 2008, which was described by Vancouver’s Globe and Mail as a local “sensation.” “Everybody in town knew about the Canadians selling cappuccinos, hamburgers, cheesecakes and Western breakfasts with a view of the truck traffic that flowed back and forth across the China-North Korea border,” the Globe and Mail reports.

Dandong is the main border-crossing and trade link between China and North Korea, but also a militarily sensitive area. The couple, who had also worked as teachers in China, reportedly gave English language lessons and were a magnet for North Korea tour organizers.The Canadian embassy in Beijing has been told that “various rights have been fully guaranteed” for the Garratts.

The spying investigation into the Garratts comes a week after Canada called out Chinese hackers who had reportedly attacked a computer network and broken into the National Research Council in Ottawa, the Canadian government’s main research body. An “unusual step” by Canada, the country also lodged a complaint with Beijing, Reuters reports. China’s Foreign Ministry denied the claims and called them “groundless.”