Pyongyang Cafe, a Kim Jong-Un ally on the Spanish coast
AFP · 7 Aug 2016, 15:53
Published: 07 Aug 2016 15:53 GMT+02:00
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Located in the Mediterranean city of Tarragona where Roman ruins vie for attention, the establishment sports a huge North Korean flag behind the bar, where tea typical from the country and Asian beers are served.
Socialist propaganda posters brought all the way from Pyongyang adorn the walls of the modern bar, and in a corner stands a bookshelf full of works by leaders of the Kim dynasty that has ruled North Korea since 1948, translated into Spanish.
"North Korea is the world's big unknown," says Alejandro Cao de Benos, founder of the bar that opened mid-July and also president of the Korean Friendship Association, which has delegates in more than 30 countries and is officially recognised by Pyongyang.
While North Korean restaurants complete with traditional food and dancing have popped up across Asia, the 41-year-old says this is the only such Western establishment.
"We want to break with all the myths, manipulation. And as not many people can go to Korea, because it's complicated and far, they can come to our cafe," says Cao de Benos.
Appointed special delegate for international cultural relations by Pyongyang in 2002, Cao de Benos is the only Westerner to occupy a post in the North Korean regime, even if it is merely honorary.
A staunch communist, his interest in the country peaked after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and he came to know some North Korean families in Madrid.
He started travelling to the country, and says his interest for North Korea eventually "turned into my passion".
As such, Cao de Benos regularly appears in the media to defend a country long criticised for its human rights violations and nuclear tests.
In a 2014 report, the United Nations highlighted a long list of crimes committed in North Korea -- extermination, slavery, torture, rape, forced abortions, political persecution, disappearances among others.
Angel Gonzalo, spokesman for Amnesty International, says the situation in the country is "distressing."
"People are completely at the mercy of what Kim Jong-Un decides for them," he says.
"It's difficult to find a right that is not being violated."
Not so, counters Cao de Benos.
"Access to food, a home or work is much more widespread in North Korea than in any other capitalist country," he says.
"Those are the real human rights in which we believe."
He claims that Pyongyang is the victim of defamation for not following Western doctrines or obeying the United States, and dismisses critical reports -- whose authors are not allowed into the country -- for being based solely on refugee testimonies.
But Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea, an association that helps North Korean refugees in Seoul, says these are genuine.
"We have thousands or ten of thousands of people describing the same picture of the country," he says.
Nevertheless, the mysterious country sparks interest in an otherwise open, globalised world.
Cao de Benos says his association counts some 17,000 members and the bar has been welcoming around 35 people a day on average in its first opening days.
He aspires to make it a cultural centre complete with talks on gastronomy and tradition, film screenings or lectures.
But its first event -- a talk on tourism -- attracted just 10 people.
"Lots of people think that you can't travel to North Korea and that's not true," Sergio Guijo, director of the Spain-based agency Travel Corea, told the attendees.
Some 50,000 tourists visit North Korea annually, a large majority of these Chinese.
Guijo's agency has organised trips there for 60 Spaniards over a year.
But tourism is a double-edged sword for the country, according to Park.
Tourism and the foreign currency it brings can help prop up the regime, which is the subject of many international sanctions, but it can also contribute to opening up the country.
"A North Korean refugee told me that when she saw these Chinese visitors, it made her think: 'Chinese people can come to Korea, so why can't I go to China, why can't I go to the outside world?'."