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Benoît Quennedey: North Korea enthusiast or spy?

AFP | Benoît Quennedey posing in front of the Panthéon in Paris on November 16, 2017.

Benoît Quennedey never hid his passion for North Korea. But did it push him to use his position as a senior civil servant at the French Senate to spy on behalf of the communist country?

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Quennedey, head administrator with the department of architecture, heritage and gardens at the French Senate, was arrested at his home in Paris on Monday by the DGSI, France’s domestic intelligence agency, on suspicion of acting as an agent for North Korea.

After four days of questioning, he was put under formal investigation on Thursday on three different counts: delivering information to a foreign power, gathering information with the intent of delivering it to a foreign power and committing espionage for a foreign power.

‘A model of development’

The 42-year-old’s apparent love affair with North Korea began during the 1990s, while he was a student at the prestigious Sciences Po University and the National School of Administration (ENA). Quennedey found himself drawn to the country’s culture, its complex history and political isolation.

His fascination with North Korea was far from secret. A vocal advocate of easing tensions with the country (France has no official diplomatic relations with Pyongyang), he joined the Franco-Korean Friendship Association (AAFC) in the early 2000s, eventually becoming its president.

Quennedey wrote extensively about the country, including a book published in 2017 entitled “North Korea: The Unknown” (“La Corée du Nord, cette inconnue”). The same year, he praised North Korean society, describing it as a “model of development” in a video posted online.

Over the years, Quennedey has visited North Korea on eight occasions, most recently in September to mark the 70th anniversary of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Yet the DGSI believes that Quennedey’s interest in the country is not entirely harmless. Following his arrest this week, investigators searched both his office and residence in Paris, as well as his room at his parents’ home in Dijon. Although his role at the Senate did not grant him access to confidential security information, he did have access to information on the innerworkings of government and the daily lives of elected officials.

‘He’s a nobody in this affair’

Quennedey’s friends and family have expressed their shock at his arrest, incredulous he could commit treason.

“My son did not cart around state secrets in his suitcase. He’s not going to resolve any diplomatic issues from his tiny position. He’s a nobody in this affair,” his father, André Quennedey, told French newspaper Le Parisien in an article published on Thursday.

Following news of Quennedey’s arrest on Monday, a group of friends posted a video online calling for his immediate release. In it, they described him as a “progressive” and “extraordinary” individual who harbours a deep love for North Korea.

“He’s really a technician... He’s someone who is fascinating to listen to. Korea is his subject, he’s really passionate about it. I went to his house once and he has an entire bookcase of Korean books. He’s in love with the country,” Aymeric Monville, Quennedey’s editor, said.

Patrick Kuentzmann, who works alongside Quennedey at the AAFC, echoed Monville.

“Benoît is someone who can be criticised for a lot of things – I’d be the first to do so – but certainly not betraying the country,” he said.

Quennedey has since been given probation on the condition that he remain in France and discontinue his work at the Senate, where he has been employed since 2003. Earlier this week, the Senate announced that he had been “temporarily” suspended from his functions.

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