When I arrived at Pyongyang Cafe in Tarragona, Spain, the door was locked and the surrounding streets were empty. I rang the doorbell several times, but I was early, and there was no answer—just a security camera staring back at me blankly. It seemed like an unlikely place for a North Korean-themed cafe: a small, inconspicuous doorway in an anonymous street in a quiet Catalonian city.
In recent years, the proprietor of this mysterious building, Alejandro Cao de Benos, a 43-year-old Tarragona native, has become Europe's principal apologist for the North Korean regime. In mid-2016 he opened the Pyongyang Cafe as a center for those interested in finding out more about the country he has adopted as his own.
De Benos is descended from one of Spain's most well-known aristocratic families, yet in spite of these beginnings, he spent most of his life advocating for communism ("Marx and Ho Chi Minh both came from well-off backgrounds," he later told me. "It was their very education and privileges that allowed them to understand society, and to see the truth in it"). By 15, he had become secretary of the Collective of Young Communists in Granada. A year later, he declared his wish to live in North Korea.
After a beer at a neighboring bar, De Benos eventually opened the door for me. Short and rotund—much the same shape, in fact, as Kim Jong Un—he was smartly dressed, polite, and seemed genuinely interested in (or at least not annoyed by) explaining himself to another innately suspicious journalist from a Western publication.
We walked to the empty bar area, where a giant North Korean flag is painted onto the wall. A small library in the corner is filled with books by leaders of the Kim dynasty, as well as Korean newspapers printed in English.
"Access to food and work (in North Korea) are more widespread than in most Western countries."
The bar's shelves were packed full of North Korean ginseng tea, which De Benos told me is one of the most commonly drunk beverages in the country. " Coffee, although becoming gradually more popular, is rarely consumed there."
I had tried ginseng tea before, and I was not a fan of its bitter, metallic taste. So instead, I asked to see if the cafe stocked any local beers. Stacked above the technicolor display of tea packets, I only saw beers from South Korea, Japan, Spain, and Thailand. De Benos shook his head. "Because of the UN trade embargo on luxury goods, of which alcohol is one, we cannot import any beers from North Korea," he explained.
Indeed, De Benos went on to tell me that the cafe stocks almost no North Korean products, something which he attributes to difficulties of importation. This explained the reliance on Japanese ramen and South Korean kimchi to fill out the rest of the bars's shelves. While I've never been to North Korea, the cafe reminded me of the pre-approved tourist shops in Pyongyang I had seen in documentaries—places where visitors can go to buy products unavailable to the native population.
Another experience that patrons are denied here is North Korean cuisine itself. I had been looking forward to sampling some dishes native to the Hermit Kingdom, but De Benos told me that he hasn't been able to get the license for an extraction fan, and so couldn't open up a kitchen. The lack of food reminded me of the food shortages in North Korea that I'd heard about, but De Benos didn't see any irony: "Access to food and work are more widespread than in most Western countries."
A photo posted by Ignasi Melià (@ignasi_melia) on Oct 22, 2016 at 3:21am PDT
As we stood in this bar devoid of any food, drinks, or even ingredients from North Korea, I began to think that, for a cultural center professing to enlighten its visitors about the "real" North Korea, there was a distinct lack of Koreaness. Then again, in showing so little of the country's culture—but rather telling guests what North Korea was really like—the cafe was not at all dissimilar to the average tourist's experience in North Korea.
"Western Democracy is as oppressive as any totalitarian regime, but the difference is that it purports to be free."
Like the city from which it gets its name, Pyongyang Cafe doesn't welcome many visitors. De Benos had an explanation for this. "Last week we had some neo-Nazis in here," he said. "They got in feigning interest in North Korea, and then all of a sudden they started throwing chairs and shouting, 'Viva Franco!' (in reference to Spain's deceased fascist dictator). "Now we choose who we let in." Before that, De Benos said that the bar was welcoming on average some 35 people a day from all over the world.
For De Benos, North Korea is the truest form of communism, and he said he first became interested in the country through meeting families who were then living and working as diplomats for the regime. After traveling to North Korea, De Benos saw a society he could easily identify with—a society in which prominent politicians stayed in apartments no different from those of state miners, where everything was shared, and where everything was provided for by the state. "The country is like one big family, and they all look after one another," De Benos told me. "The concept of the individual success does not exist." That's in comparison to a Western society that he believes is obsessed by superficial phenomena, a culture driven to false pleasures by the implacable publicity of unnecessary good and services, a culture that, so absorbed by its pursuit of individuality, fails to notice its governments' manipulations behind the scenes. "Western Democracy is as oppressive as any totalitarian regime, but the difference is that it purports to be free."
A photo posted by Martí García MJ (マルティガルシア) (@martigz98) on Jul 13, 2016 at 6:57am PDT
"I have lost jobs and friendships, not because I have behaved or performed badly, but because people have been scared to associate with me."
Inside North Korea, with the help of his adopted Korean father Lee Jong-un, a prominent politician, De Benos began making contacts in the government (he claims to know Kim Jong-un). It was a result of this and his tireless advocacy of the state that in 2002 then-leader Kim Jong-il awarded him the honorary position of Special Representative of the Foreign Ministry of North Korea.
One of the things D Benos said he loves about North Korea is that relationships are not ruined by money or the pursuit of societal ideals. "In a lot of Western Capitalist societies, most couples don't even share bank accounts, they sign prenuptial agreements. It wouldn't even enter into a Korean's mind that what was theirs wasn't also their partners."
De Benos set up the Korean Friendship Association (KFA) in 2000, which he says has some 15,000 members worldwide. Through this organization, he plans trips to North Korea, as well as other cultural activities, for interested foreigners. In public, he began to give speeches at communist rallies all over Europe, and defended the regime in scathing Op-eds and social-media posts. In his latest venture, Pyongyang Cafe, he hoped to create a base for all his work, while educating curious visitors with talks on North Korean gastronomy and tradition, film screenings of popular Korean cinema, and lectures about traveling there.
"Having the views that I have in a society such as this one, has made my life complicated," he said. "I have lost jobs and friendships, not because I have behaved or performed badly, but because people have been scared to associate with me."
The only thing in which he finds solace is his work—not his day job as an IT consultant, but his fight for the ideals that he holds so close. "This is what all this is for," he said, pointing to the cafe. "We want to disband governmental manipulations of North Korea here, by holding open debates and talks, and letting curious people come in to ask questions in a relaxed environment while enjoying some Korean ginseng tea."
De Benos insists that he is not here to proselytise or indoctrinate. He is only offering people a different vision of North Korea to the one circulated by the Western press. And he will continue to fulfil the wishes of his leader and his state until the day comes when he can finally retire to his government allocated apartment in Pyongyang.