Alejandro Cao de Benos holding a pin of Kim Il-sung. (All photos courtesy of Alejandro Cao de Benos.)
This weekend saw the 60th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice. While you no doubt spent Saturday toasting the memory of the fatherland's eternal victory over the US, it's unlikely that you rejoiced with quite the same vigor as the DPRK's biggest fan in the West.
Alejandro Cao de Benos—a 38-year-old Catalan aristocrat—is the head of the Korean Friendship Association (KFA), an organization that works with North Korea's Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. He's North Korea's unofficial ambassador to the rest of the world, and the only Westerner to be awarded the position of special delegate in the country.
His organization represents nearly 13,000 people internationally who want to be friends with the DPRK, whether that be out of a genuine sense of solidarity, or because they thought it would be funny to sign up to his website when they were high. As head of North Korea's international fan club, Alejandro was able to celebrate the big day by flying out to Pyongyang last week and meeting Kim Jong-un and a coterie of his top ministers at the Arirang Mass Games, later going on to watch a huge military parade at Kim Il-sung Square.
I caught up with Alejandro before he left for the festivities.
VICE: Hi, Alejandro. How did you end up as president of the Korean Friendship Association?
Alejandro Cao de Benos: I was 16 years old when I had my first North Korean delegation in Madrid. I founded the KFA, organized by the Justice Ministry of Spain, which then expanded internationally with conferences, cultural exchanges, and many visits to North Korea. Since my passion was always Korea, I got my official position as a special delegate from the Foreign Ministry in 2002.
Was it difficult to obtain the position as a non-Korean?
Yes, it was. It was the first and only time in history that a foreigner was appointed this responsibility. It took about ten years to earn their confidence. It's a great honor since my main interest was to live and work in North Korea. My Korean name is Cho Son Il, which means ”Korea is one.” I’ve always believed in the Korean Revolution and General Kim Jong-il, who I met several times before his death, and even accepted gifts from.
You’re also in charge of the DPRK’s official website?
Yes. I proposed the first-ever DPRK website in 2000 to our minister because there was no information about it, and he agreed. I was given responsibility not just for North Korea’s publicity, but to act as a multi-ambassador to the country and to all countries that don't have a North Korean delegate. So my work includes giving a lot of media interviews, since obviously most North Koreans abroad will not give interviews to foreign journalists. When something happens and they want an official DPRK point of view, they call me.
What kind of requests do you normally deal with?
Landing permit issues from Australia and Russia, for example. I’m not a decision maker. My work is to forward the requests to the relevant ministry or department in North Korea, unless it's related to the government website, which I run, or the KFA.
What is Kim Jong-un like in person?
He’s a mixture of father and grandfather. Like Kim Il Sun, he’s friendly and likes to talk to the people and receive foreign delegations. At the same time, he has the heritage of general Kim Jong-il since he’s long been in military affairs. And even during the recent crisis in May with South Korea and the US, he remained firm in defending the independence of the country and its political system.
If you have a North Korean passport, why not live in Pyongyang?
If I lived in Pyongyang I could not have this interview with you today and attend to foreign requests. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter—there is no internet access in the DPRK. My work would be quite limited and useless inside the country.
Which Western media misperceptions of North Korea do you feel are too often portrayed?
There are so many, I don’t know where to start. But the main one is that North Koreans are forced into the "Juche" communist idea—that’s totally wrong. The ideology of single-minded unity comes from Korea’s cultural roots. This is why the political system continues, even under the strong pressure of US blockades. Even though the DPRK has been through terrible times—and economically collapsed from 1995 to 2000—politically, they never gave up on the belief of a society based on equality. It's a big mistake for Westerners to believe that the DPRK will collapse—it's never going to happen under the current leadership.
I’ve read differing accounts of Juche. Do North Koreans believe in their destiny as a racially superior nation?
No, no, no. That is American propaganda to give a false image of North Korea. Juche means socialism, Korean-style. Our own version, developed by Kim Il-sung. How can North Korea be racist when they have given years of support and alliance to African countries from the heart, without asking anything in return? It's Japan that is convinced of its racial superiority, in invading other countries. Or even America, which believes in its own superiority by forcing its decadent culture onto other nations.
If North Korea continues its nuclear development, do you expect another civil war with the South?
First, the Korean War was not a civil war at all. South Korea did not sign the armistice agreement in 1953, but was and still is just a puppet army under the military control of the US. So that’s another problem: people don’t know that the Korean War was only between North Korea and the US. South Korea had nothing to do with it and can’t sign a peace treaty today because the US won’t let them. So it's up to the US to leave Korea to the Koreans. If they go back home, everything will be solved.
Which countries have the strongest "friendship networks" with North Korea?
Traditionally China, as a neighbor, because their people are very communist. And Russia, since there are many North Koreans living there. Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam as well. But things are changing. Nowadays we have a lot of supporters in Europe and the US.
Alejandro with Kim Yong-nam, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly of North Korea.
Really? How many international members are there?
Near 13,000. Since the US is the most developed in terms of internet capacity, it's number one right now in terms of members. Second is the UK. To join as a member is free, and it's very important that no one earns any money.
If you don’t earn any money, how do you survive?
We are all volunteers with day jobs who dedicate our free time to our passion for North Korea. I haven’t received a single cent for my work since I started.
I see that you believe in the reunification of Korea. How do you envision that occurring?
It depends entirely on South Korea right now. If the current president backs the idea of the true Korean identity, we will see reunification in ten to 15 years. If she just follows the interests of the US, there will be more confrontation. How will reunification happen? Based on the model of one country, two systems. It would be a confederate model, keeping communism in the north and capitalism in the south, but with open borders and a parliament that would agree to work together on projects like the Korean DMZ. But the US has to leave first, of course.
Don’t you think the huge economic disparity between North and South will cause too much tension and mass migration?
Well, in South Korea there are a lot of beggars, too—a lot of people who are being exploited at criminally low salaries. I invite anyone to look up the definition of democracy on the internet or even Wikipedia. They call South Korea a democracy, but just look it up: national security act. It was a law originally imposed by the US during wartimes that used to be called The Anti-Communism Law. You can’t read anything about communism or North Korea in the South. If you do, it is punishable by three years in prison, up to even being executed. Obviously after reunification there will be some North Koreans influenced by the neon lights and marketing from the South’s capitalism. But there will also be thousands of underpaid Southern workers and union trade fighters who will move North and be supportive of communism.
Does this national security law also exist the other way around? If North Koreans are caught with capitalist material, do they also face the death penalty?
No, not exactly like in South Korea. As long as they are not involved in any criminality or challenge the government, there is no problem.
Alejandro with Yang Hyong Sop, ex-chairman of the Supreme People's Assembly.
Which countries invest most heavily in the DPRK? Which attend these IKBC trips you organize?
China, obviously. And Eastern Europe, because in the past they were once socialist countries. We have some third party agreements in the US with private investors and in the UK. They are usually interested in exporting, mining, heavy machinery, ship building, and IT. In many international contests recreating artificial intelligence, North Korean engineers have won over Japan. But the US blockade still prevents North Korea from developing itself economically.
Aren’t the US embargos in place because North Korea is guilty of human rights violations?
No, not at all. For us, human rights means housing, food, water, free healthcare, and education. We believe that the US and UK are the first not to accomplish that. I’ve been to the UK many times and seen hunger and poverty and so many social problems that they don’t have the right to judge anyone until they solve their own problems. Not just provide a McDonald's every few blocks.
But what about widespread claims of North Koreans starving or suffering from food shortages?
No, you're mistaking this with what happened from 1995 to 2000. Now there is not a single person suffering from this in all the DPRK, because the state provides for all their necessities. In North Korea we don’t have prostitution, crack addicts, or beggars. In the UK, and even here in Spain, I will show you people who are starving in the streets—white children without food. But then you’re going to have to promise me that you will publish that!
Sure. Anything to add?
People should see with their own eyes by visiting North Korea, not by listening to mass media. If possible, come with the KFA. Why? Because you will be coming as a friend of the country, directly invited by the Foreign Ministry. You can talk to the North Korean people in schools and factories. We bring diplomats, doctors, and anthropologists who are keen to learn about the daily life and reality of the DPRK, not just to take pictures. There are many places that we provide exclusive access to, like Parliament and the Ministry of Defense.
More stories from North Korea:
WATCH – The VICE Guide to North Korea