The hermit kingdom of North Korea counts among its faithful servants one man who might not, at first, seem the most obvious proponent of the country’s notoriously secretive regime.
Alejandro Cao de Benós, 42, from Barcelona, is an honorary special delegate for the DPRK’s Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries – a one-man publicity machine for North Korea abroad… as well as working as an IT consultant when he’s not extolling the virtues of his adopted homeland.
Alejandro Cao de Benós in North Korea. Photo: Alejandro Cao de Benós.
He visits the country as often as twice a month and receives a rapturous reception when he touches down in Pyongyang.
“I feel Catalan and Spanish by birth and North Korean by adoption,” Cao de Benós , whose Korean name is Cho Son-il ('Korea is one'), told The Local, adding that there were more similarities between North Korea and Spain than one might expect.
“I would say that the North Koreans are the 'Latinos' of Asia. Compared to my Japanese, Chinese or Thai friends, Koreans show their feelings (see video below), like hugging family members and friends, crying, laughing and being quite expressive. They also like to stay up late at night, talking and drinking,” Cao de Benós added.
North Koreans showing their feelings at the death of Kim Jong-il.
When most Spanish teenagers in the 1990s were obsessed with football and video games, Alejandro Cao de Benós had a more unusual hobby.
“I became fascinated by North Korea when I was 16 years old. I was very interested in politics and Asian culture,” Cao de Benós told The Local.
“It was the 90s and some North Korean families lived in Madrid. I made contact with them and they gave me books, films and music that transformed by initial curiosity into passion for the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.”
His parents, perhaps understandably, had their reservations about their son’s newfound love of North Korea – these were the days of the so-called Arduous March – when North Korea was crippled by economic crisis and famine.
The famine, which lasted from 1994 until 1998, is said to have claimed between 240,000 and 3.5 million lives.
“At first my parents were worried due the propaganda and misinformation in the Western press,” explained Cao de Benós. “But after they started to meet more and more North Koreans that came to Spain: performers, painters, singers, students… they learnt how kind and nice the people were and how well they always regarded their leaders and society.”
“At first my parents thought I would be jailed and I have been fired twice for my political views,” he said, adding ” (And Spain) is regarded as a free democratic country with a constitution that grants political freedom.”
Cao de Benós being interviewed as part of his role as head of the Korean Friendship Association.
Cao de Benós founded the Korean Friendship Association in 2000 and has members from 120 countries – most from the United States – as well as offices in the DPRK, Spain, Norway and Thailand.
In his work for North Korea, Cao de Benós has met the former ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong-il as well as his son, the current leader Kim Jong-un.
“They are servants of the people, very humble and hardworking,” he said.
“While in other countries you find a consul or an ambassador who believes he is kind of a living God, in the DPRK it’s the other way around. The higher you go in the government, the more humble the behaviour.”
“While our leader Kim Jong -il had to pass the most difficult time in hard economic conditions and under pressure from the USA, he always had a smile on his face when he was among his citizens. And our Marshal Kim Jong-un is the same.”
The Kims have long been regarded in the West of turning themselves into a personality cult – images and statues of supreme leader Kim Il-sung pepper Pyongyang and pictures of the man, his son and grandson hang proudly on the walls of most North Korean homes.
The effects of this “personality cult” are no more evident than when a North Korean leader dies and the country’s citizens take to the streets in displays of abject sorrow.
When Kim Il-Sung died in 1994, North Koreans – who had viewed the leader as almost immortal – appeared astounded and beat their chests and the ground in sadness, moaning and crying in an ostentatious outpouring of public grief.
The same thing happened when Kim Jong-il died in 2011 – with even the very same newsreader, Ri Chun-hee, struggling to hold back the sobs to announce both deaths.
Cao de Benós has appeared on numerous news programmes and in the recent documentary The Propaganda Game, in which he complained about the constant propaganda against North Korea on behalf of the West.
What does he think are the most persistent myths about North Korea in the Western media?
“There are countless. Ninety-five percent of the information is plainly invented. That if you don’t do this or that you will be jailed, that we have concentration camps, that we have public executions, that there is only one hairstyle, that we kill generals with mortars and anti-aircraft guns, that you cannot speak your mind or have an opinion, that you do not have rest or entertainment.
“In general, I would like to say the biggest lie and mistake is that people live in fear and are forced to follow the North Korean regime and Juche ideology.
“The DPRK is still going with its socialist system, even 25 years after the fall of communism and under the most terrible US sanctions, because its citizens believe in our Juche idea and the honesty of our leaders and the Worker’s Party of Korea.”
North Korea is often accused of having one of the worst human rights records in the world.
“North Koreans continued to suffer denial and violations of almost every aspect of their human rights”, Amnesty International wrote in their 2015/16 annual report on North Korea.
The report described human rights violations across areas including freedom of movement, freedom of expression, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and the right to food.
But Alejandro Cao de Benós dismisses such claims and insists it is all based on Western propaganda.
“It is propaganda. The capitalist, fake democratic countries are the first nations where human rights are violated. You may have no job, no house, no studies, no proper medical care, etc because you're as 'free' as the size your wallet.
“But if you do not have money or you're one of the many thousands of families in Spain without income, you can only live next to an ATM machine and ask the Red Cross for some food to survive. Wait… you always have the rubbish containers! Look around the supermarkets on an evening and you'll see another – non touristy – side of Spain.”
For Cao de Benós – who leads regular tours to the country, which can be as much as twice the price of other tours because of the exclusive access he promises – his work is about looking past the stereotype of the country and letting people glimpse the real North Korea.
“Don’t believe people when they say ‘Spain smells of garlic’, ‘British people never take a shower’ or ‘Germans are all rich’. Try to see for yourself and talk with the citizens. It’s the best way to see and understand this world.”