French Civil Servant Charged as North Korea Spy…Wait, What?

Here’s a question you probably don’t consider all too often: when does a healthy enthusiasm for the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea cross the line into espionage?

For Benoit Quennedey, senior French civil servant in the French Senate, it appears that he didn’t ask himself this question quite soon enough. And, as a result, Quennedey was arrested on Monday, creating one of the strangest international espionage headlines in recent memory.

After all, how often do we hear about native Westerners, in all of their Caucasian, cultured glory, being accused of being sleeper cells for the most reclusive, controversial nation East of the Yellow Sea? If you had to pen a spy novel involving North Korea and a French spy acting on behalf of the Kim regime, chances are casting Benoit Quennedey would resign your novel to the comedy section from the jump.

For pete’s sake, Quennedey is the president of the Franco-Korean Friendship Association. Sure, there’s something to be said about hiding in plain sight, but even Bond himself wouldn’t have been brazen enough to, as the President of the Franco-Korean Friendship Association, actually take the next, albeit colossal, step into the role of president of the Franco-Korean Espionage Association.

And, apparently he was using the Franco-Korean cocktail hours to pass along information that the French government considered sensitive enough to categorize its unauthorized exchange as treasonous; Quennedey was charged with preliminary charges of treason and delivering information to a foreign power. Presumably, Benoit wasn’t passing along his mère’s secret crepe recipe…

But the saga of Benoit Quennedey, accused spy, is more bizarre than is to be comprehensible. Sure, the man had a fondness for North Korea, and that alone is strange enough. He had traveled to the Hermit Kingdom eight times, including a 2018 trip planned around the celebration of North Korea’s 70th anniversary of the nation’s founding. By all account’s Quennedey would have had ample opportunity to interact with North Korean officials, especially if he were determined to mark himself a place in the annals of off-the-wall espionage ranks.

Because, make no mistake, Benoit Quennedey – North Korean affections aside – would have been one of the most unlikely candidates to pass along top-secret French intel to the North Koreans. Quennedey, in a nation where the term ‘public servant’ is about as esteemed and rare as ‘burger flipper’ in the United States, was essentially a glorified groundskeeper making a living sucking from the government teet.

‘Mr. Quennedey’s arrest left family and acquaintances incredulous that he might have come across information of interest to North Korean spies. Mr. Quennedey worked in the Senate’s department of architecture, heritage and gardens, which is largely responsible for the maintenance of the Senate palace and the grounds of the renowned Luxembourg Gardens where the institution is located.

“We ask what information he could have had that was ultraconfidential?” Mr. Quennedey’s mother said.’ (Wall Street Journal)

It’s a fair question that anybody who reads into the details of the case cannot help but ponder themselves. Even the most determined of turncoats is of little use if they are, for all intents and purposes, resigned to the basement broom closet when any potentially damaging intel is being exchanged on the top floor boardroom.

Benoit Quennedey, unless his entire official existence within the French government is some sort of sleight of hand, comes off as Maxwell Smart blended with Inspector Clouseau meets Dick Steele. Unless he is the equivalent of a CIA agent convincing the neighbors that he is a traveling insurance salesman, the story of Benoit Quennedey is truly the stuff of farce.

Which begs the question: is being infatuated with North Korea a crime?

According to a detailed rundown of Quennedey’s North Korea-related proclivities, he would be the prime example of a Westerner whose fondness for North Korea crossed into the concerning territory.

‘A vocal advocate of easing tensions with the country (France has no official diplomatic relations with Pyongyang)…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.’ (France24)

Quennedey’s parents and friends continue to paint him as, at his most threatening, a bumbling wannabe who was never in any position to truly engage in espionage.

“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. (France24)

Yet, the government has ole Benoit in custody, and apparently plans to proceed with charges, at least until further notice.

So, is he Johnny English (French?) or a modern day Benedict Arnold?

Time may tell, but for now, the saga of Benoit Quennedey has left us with one clear message: fall in love with your significant other, your career, or your favorite sports team. When it comes to the Hermit Kingdom, you’re better off keeping a healthy emotional distance.

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