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Alleged spy’s arrest sets off alarms

NEWS ANALYSIS: The arrest and imprisonment last week of a Norwegian man charged with spying for China has rung new alarms over national security in Norway. It’s also raised questions over whether Norwegians are too naive and trusting.

Norway’s foreign minister, Espen Barth Eide of the Labour Party (left), visited China just last winter. Now Norwegian intelligence officials have arrested a Norwegian citizen and charged him with spying for China. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet/Ragnhild Simenstad

“Norway is fortunately a country where we largely rely on one another,” editorialized newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). It called Norway’s latest espionage case, however, “a useful reminder” that Norwegians must be more conscious of how foreign intelligence agencies operate, both physically in Norway and digitally.

“We must absolutely not be naive,” Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre told newspaper Aftenposten in an article published just days after the arrest. It was aimed mostly at how his government is “updating” its policy towards China: Norway’s police intelligence agency PST has long claimed that China poses a major espionage threat, especially regarding supply chains and positioning itself in the Arctic. China is also believed to be interested in Norwegian technology. Støre himself has also told Parliament that China supports Russia’s war on Ukraine, as a power struggle escalates between the US and China.

It’s a delicate balance, however, since China is also Norway’s largest trading partner after the US and the EU, and plays an important role in international climate issues. Støre stressed how Norway has among the most open economies in the world and wants contact and trade with China. At the same time, however, Støre warned that China “is out after technology, insight into political decision-making processes and personal contacts in areas we must protect ourselves against, out of consideration to our own and our allies’ security.”

The Norwegian citizen now under arrest hasn’t been publicly identified but is described as a relatively young man in his 30s who was born in Norway and grew up in the Oslo area. He’s highly educated, both in Norway and abroad, and has concentrated on issues involving international relations and security policy. He also has ties to a Chinese university, speaks Chinese, has been active in several civic organizations and been a member of Støre’s own Labour Party, even in the party’s local Oslo chapter where Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide is also a member.

State broadcaster NRK reported that he has taken part in seminars and traveled with Labour Party members in Oslo to Berlin to study Norwegian-German defense cooperation just last year. NRK also reported last week that his tax returns show little if any income, and that his spending patterns are part of PST’s investigation. They include how he picked up the bill at an upscale Chinese restaurant in Oslo after inviting contacts to dinner, even though tax returns show no income from 2016 to 2022.

Officials working here at Norway’s police intelligence agency PST arrested the Norwegian citizen just after he landed in Oslo after a trip to China. PHOTO: PST

The foreign ministry has referred questions to intelligence agency PST (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste), which arrested the man last Monday right after he’d landed at Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen. He was on his way home from a trip to China, charged with espionage and quickly ordered held in prison for at least four weeks with no visitors or contacts other than his court-appointed defense attorneys, led by Marius Dietrichson.

“He denies he’s a Chinese agent and claims he is not guilty of what he’s been charged with,” Dietrichson told reporters after the arrest, which PST claims was “not dramatic.” Prosecutor Thomas Blom said PST would not be releasing many details about its case against the alleged spy, apart from the stated charges of “efforts for obtaining intelligence into state secrets.” He declined to reveal what sort of intelligence was being sought for the Chinese.

Media reports have later linked the man not only to the Labour Party but also to the conservative think tank Civita. NRK reported this weekend that he took part in Civita’s academy in 2016, went on a Civita study trip to Copenhagen and was invited to several Civita events including the organization’s summer party, often attended by the prime minister and other top Norwegian politicians.

It’s the first time a Norwegian has been charged with spying for China, and that’s also rung alarms. DN noted this week that many have “useful and legitimate” ties to China, through business, politics, diplomacy or academia, at the same time China poses an intelligence-gathering threat to Norway.

China is believed to be especially interested in underwater technology, and that ultimately prompted the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim to cancel a conference last month that had attracted around 15 Chinese researchers. Aftenposten reported that several of them came from technical universities in China that cooperate closely with the Chinese military. The conference was cancelled at the urging of both PST and Norway’s foreign ministry, but proceeded in a digital form. NTNU has since denied that it defied warnings from PST, followed PST’s advice and had no control over digital revival since that was handled by another organizer.

PST has also warned against Norwegian shipowners’ practice of having foreign captains and crew on their vessels, many of whom currently are both Chinese and Russian. PST fears that can leave the vessels vulnerable to takeover in the case of war, but Prime Minister Støre himself objected to changing practice, for fear shipowners would flag out vessels in the Norwegian international shipping register. He denied charges from the opposition in Parliament that he was being naive himself, but agreed to re-evaluate current practice.

China’s embassy in Oslo, meanwhile, needed some time to respond to the arrest of China’s alleged Norwegian spy early last week. It later issued a statement to Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) in which the embassy noted that some European countries have “fabricated and hyped up so-called Chinese espionage cases,” to reflect badly on China.

The embassy added that some agencies in Norway have “repeatedly” made “irresponsible claims” without offering any “concrete facts.” The embassy dismissed threats from China as “propaganda,” which has damaged normal cooperation between China and Norway.

It concluded its message by writing that Chinese officials hoped the Norwegian agencies involved will drop their prejudicial views and rather opt for an objective and fair view of China. They called on agencies like PST to base their actions on facts and be aware of “attempts to damage bilateral relations.”

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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