Senior French civil servant Benoit Quennedey in Paris last year. Intelligence agencies have arrested him on suspicion he passed confidential information to North Korea. Photo: AFP
Senior French civil servant Benoit Quennedey in Paris last year. Intelligence agencies have arrested him on suspicion he passed confidential information to North Korea. Photo: AFP

In a case that is bizarre even by the standards of North Korean espionage, a French bureaucrat has been accused of being an operative for Pyongyang.

He may have spied for a roguish, nuclear-armed dictatorship, but the smooth-faced, bespectacled Benoit Quennedey does not fit the profile of superspook James Bond or supervillain Ernst Blofeld.

The 42-year-old senior civil servant works at the French Senate’s department of architecture, heritage and gardens, at its office nestled in the old Renaissance palace of Luxembourg, in the heart of the French capital.

Yet this senior official was arrested on Sunday night on his return from a family weekend in his hometown Dijon, Burgundy. He was being questioned over the “collection and delivery of information to a foreign power” by the French domestic security agency Direction Générale de la Sécurité Intérieure, or DGSI.

The investigators suspect Quennedey leaked sensitive information to North Korea, a country for which he has publicly expressed his sympathy, during regular TV appearances and through his two books, “The Economy of North Korea 2012: The Birth of a New Asian Dragon?” and “The Unknown North Korea: Deciphering the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

He is also the president of the Franco-Korean Friendship Association, or AAFC, which promotes ties with Pyongyang and supports the reunification of the divided Koreas.

Useful fool or real spy?

Given his high-profile connections with North Korea, he is certainly known to local spooks.

“He had been under surveillance for a long time,” says a North Korea expert based in Paris, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case. “He must have transmitted information of substantial level for the DGSI to decide to arrest him.”

Seoul-based media NK News suggests he may have passed on architecture-related documents to North Korea last August, though this does not explain why he has been arrested now.

Quennedey’s arrest triggered surprise within his family as well as within the small circle of North Korea watchers in France, where he was well known.

“This is astounding and grotesque,” protested Edmond Janssen from Delga, a small Marxist publishing house which had invited Quennedey to present his views on North Korea.

Coreanologist Patrick Maurus was also doubtful about the spying accusation. “I am bewildered. I have no idea about any potential spying activity, but I would argue that his position as chairman of the AAFC does not make for a very discreet cover,” said Maurus, a professor at the prestigious language school INALCO in Paris.

Quennedey appears to be part of a long tradition of European intellectuals who espouse hard left causes.

He never made any secret of his sympathy for the reclusive state, even during his studies at the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) in 2001-2003, where he used to distribute pamphlets about North Korea’s Juche ideology to his classmates.

He has visited North Korea several times and is regularly invited as an international relations expert by various media, including France 24 and Moscow-backed Russia Today, to discuss North Korea.

Possibly it was Quennedey’s high-profile support for a rogue state that led to his arrest and questioning. “He is very smart and knows of, but will never acknowledge, the problems in North Korea, but he is so close to them he may have crossed a red line,” said a Seoul-based source who had met him in Paris.

Egotism may also have played a role in his activities. “Being president of the AAFC gave him an ID and a public profile,” the source mused. “He was not a nobody.”

“He is shy but smart and well prepared,” said another North Korea watcher who debated with him during a recent radio show on the French National radio station France Info. Quennedey’s views were clear: He once had a heated argument with Pierre Rigoulot, co-author of “The Aquariums of Pyongyang,” the global bestseller that revealed the North Korean gulags.

The French connection

His arrest occurs at a sensitive time in relations between France and North Korea.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, on his recent European tour, asked French President Emmanuel Macron’s help in softening the UN stance on North Korean sanctions during a summit held at the Elysée Palace on October 15. The response was frosty.

“We are waiting for precise commitments from Pyongyang to demonstrate its real desire to engage in the dismantlement of its nuclear and ballistic programs,” Macron told a news conference alongside Moon, ruling out any near-term sanctions relief.

France, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is the only EU member, along with Estonia, to have no diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. As a nuclear power, Paris is wary of Kim’s rapid ballistic missile and atomic progress, and has been pushing for a tough line within the European bloc, and at the UN.

“Did Quennedey offer information or advice to North Korea during that critical diplomatic stage?” wondered a North Korea expert based in Paris.

It seems unlikely. Such advice was more likely to have been on a personal, rather than a professional level. His position within the administrative and financial unit of the Senate did not grant him access to sensitive information, nor influence over French diplomacy.

The on-going investigation by the Paris public prosecutors should reveal whether the enigmatic bureaucrat was a true spy or just a vocal but clumsy admirer of the Kims.