The man who has been known for years as the unofficial "ambassador" of the North Korean regime in Spain has been arrested by Spanish authorities for arms trafficking. Alejandro Cao de Benós, a Spanish aristocrat and colorful character who has long been a mouthpiece of the world's most secretive dictatorship, was arrested in Tarragona, on the Mediterranean coast near Barcelona, according to reports in Spanish media.
At least nine other people, including one who was described as the 42-year-old de Benós's roommate, were arrested, including the head of the alleged arms-trafficking ring, which prosecutors say was based in the southern Spanish city of Murcia. The operation was still ongoing on Tuesday.
De Benós frequently appears in North Korean military uniform, including in the photo on his Twitter account, but he isn't really a soldier of the Korean People's Army. Nor is he an employee of the government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or even a North Korean citizen. He is merely a sympathizer of the regime and a staunch defender of its autarchic policy of juche — and a frequent commentator on North Korean affairs in Western media, which are fascinated by a man with "baron" and "count" among his family titles who is also an ardent Communist and a friend of the Kim family's dictatorship.
After serving in the Spanish armed forces, de Benós, the scion of the "barons of Lés, counts of Argelejo and marquises of Rosalmonte" according to Spanish newspaper El Mundo, rebelled against his noble origins and became not only a hyper-radical leftist, but also the founder of the Korean Friendship Association. He even uses the Korean name Cho Sun-il or "one Korea," according to the newspaper.
But, at least according to another report in El Mundo, de Benós was not involved in the sort of arms trafficking that North Korea has been accused of, in violation of an international embargo. There are no fighter jets, artillery shells or machine guns involved here, unlike on a North Korean ship seized by Panama in 2013. The allegation is far more prosaic: de Benós was in possession of as many as three blank-firing pistols modified to shoot real bullets. Sources close to the investigation told El Mundo that he had bought the weapons, for his own personal defense, from the alleged traffickers.
It isn't clear if de Benós had any specific fears that might have led him to arm himself illegally. While fairly well-known among North Korea watchers, he isn't exactly a public figure; his biggest shot at some kind of fame is an appearance last year in a documentary on North Korea, The Propaganda Game, by Spanish director Álvaro Longoria, in which he plays host to the filming crew in North Korea. Which is not, he said, a dictatorship.
"We are a society based on meritocracy," he told El Mundo. (De Benós refers to North Korea as his homeland, although he resides in Spain.) "Every factory, university or department ... holds an assembly every Saturday which decides things democratically," he added.
Besides defending the regime of Kim Jong-un, de Benós leads paid trips to North Korea, including some in which he has brought Western journalists to the country — and which have sometimes ended with participants being detained. That has led some journalists to question whether Baron de Benós is the real deal, or just someone who says he's got juice with the Pyongyang regime and likes to dress up in weird uniforms.
"His honorary charge is devoid of executive functions. His real occupation," writes El Mundo, "is closer to that of a travel agent."
Follow Alberto Riva on Twitter: @Albertoriva