Flamboyant career diplomat Gerhard Sabathil touched down in Seoul in late 2015 for what should have been a plum ambassadorial posting: EU envoy to South Korea, a crucial economic partner and strategic Asian ally.
Yet 15 months later, he had left after his native Germany revoked his security clearance, the first sign of trouble that culminated this month with a series of police raids in Germany and Belgium. Authorities in Berlin suspect Mr Sabathil — who is in a relationship with a Chinese academic — of spying for China’s intelligence agency.
The affair has highlighted fears about the EU’s vulnerability to the threat of Chinese state espionage, especially as relations between the two powers have become more tense.
“The EU has become an intelligence battleground, because Europe is so important to China and relations with the US are so strained,” said Janka Oertel, Asia Programme director at the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank. “And ambassadors provide a route right to the top.”
German investigators searched nine offices and homes in Germany and Belgium on January 15 as part of their probe. Prosecutors said the investigation targeted three unnamed individuals. European officials have confirmed that one of those was Mr Sabathil, who did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr Sabathil, a career EU official who began working at the European Commission in the 1980s, has led bloc delegations all over Europe. A colourful figure with a fondness for bow ties, he served as the EU diplomatic service’s director for East Asia and Pacific until he moved to Korea in 2015. He was deeply interested in the nuclear threat on the Korean peninsula, travelling to Pyongyang to meet North Korean officials just months before he started his posting in Seoul.
The German investigation has focused attention on his sudden departure from South Korea. The revocation of his security clearance was linked to concerns surrounding his relationship with Shen Wenwen, a specialist in China-EU comparative politics and international relations, two people familiar with the matter said they were told.
Ms Shen, who has not been accused of any offence, did not respond to a request for comment. The case comes after instances in which western authorities — particularly in the US — have been criticised for their undue suspicion of people with Chinese connections.
Details of Ms Shen’s background remain sketchy but according to social media profiles — now deleted — she grew up in Chengdu, in China’s Sichuan province, and studied in the country before joining Xinhua, the national state news agency.
She then studied in the UK for eight years and earned a doctorate before working in Brussels in various capacities at the EU-Asia Centre think-tank, the European Parliament and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.
Mr Sabathil and Ms Shen appear to have known each other since at least 2013, when they were listed as co-authors on an academic paper on European foreign policy. Ms Shen left Brussels that year to take a visiting scholarship at Australia National University, in Canberra, on a European Commission-funded grant. She then moved to New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington and has also been associated with the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. Ms Shen left New Zealand in 2015 to take a position as a visiting professor at a European-focused centre at Korea University.
Ms Shen has lately been living in Berlin with Mr Sabathil and their children, while he has worked as a lobbyist in the German capital and Brussels, people who know the couple said.
During this time, the pair have become associated with the Chinese dissident community in Germany, including Liu Xia, the poet and widow of the jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. Ms Liu, who was under house arrest in China, fled the country in 2018 after her husband’s death.
Organisers of an event held in Prague last April to commemorate Mr Liu claim Mr Sabathil and Ms Shen disrupted plans for Ms Liu to speak at the event by persuading her not to attend. “He asked me if I knew what I was doing and that I risked damaging Czech-China relations,” Bill Shipsey, a convener of the Prague event, recalled of Mr Sabathil’s intervention. “I reminded him that I didn’t work for the Czech government, or the state.”
Additional reporting by Jamil Anderlini in Hong Kong, Tobias Buck in Berlin, Christian Shepherd in Beijing and Primrose Riordan in Sydney
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