I know what you’re already thinking: Alejandro Cao de Benos, that fat Spanish guy who runs around North Korea in a Mao suit, gave you — a guy who advocates the violent overthrow of the North Korean regime — an interview? Don’t be silly.
Cao gave the interview to Italian freelance journalist and OFK reader Enzo Reale, who kindly offered to translate the full four-part interview into English and allow me to publish the whole thing here, which I’ve done with absolutely no edits, except to put Cao’s responses into italics for clarity. I can’t overstate my gratitude to Enzo for offering me this opportunity. No, I don’t suppose Cao is really an influential figure on the global or even the local stage, but Cao is the political equivalent of a Kardashian or a Paris Hilton — someone we can enjoy pitying, despising, and sometimes envying for their material privileges. Cao is a man about town in the world’s most isolated place, a man of material privilege in a land of famine, who leads a libertine lifestyle amid rigid conformity, a self-professed dissident in a land where all dissent is crushed. It just seems especially gratifying to loathe a man like Alejando Cao de Benos.
There are going to be four parts to this interview, and even from Part I, you can see that Enzo is a clever enough questioner to let Cao fisk himself far more effectively than I could ever do.
His name is Alejandro Cao de BenÃ³s, he comes from a family of the Catalan aristocracy and is, today, the only Western official in the North Korean government. In his capacity as special representative of the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, the thirty-five years old native of Tarragona travels the world as an ambassador, receives foreign delegations in Pyongyang and takes charge of businesses with companies of the advanced capitalism. As president of the Korean Friendship Association (KFA), which he founded in 2000, he proudly exports Kim Jong-il’s word and introduces the Hermit Kingdom to politicians and onlookers.
While 1989 revolutions dismiss totalitarianism in Europe, Alejandro Cao de BenÃ³s starts looking for a model of society that embodies his idea of communism. He finds it in North Korean system and from that moment his life changes. He travels to Pyongyang (when nobody does) to introduce cultural projects to the representatives of the regime. Once overcome initial distrusts and suggestions to go back home, Cao gradually opens the doors of the institutions preceded by one of the historical sentences of the Dear Leader: “The word impossible doesn’t exist in Korean language”. When Mr. Cao proposes to implement the first official website of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Kim Jong-il himself co-optes him into the power structure. Since then, Cao is a loyal soldier of the Juche ideology, a mixture of Asian communism and nationalistic pride, fruit of the intellectual formulation of the Eternal President, Kim Il-sung. He’s never been on a battlefield but, on the uniform he wears when in Pyongyang, he displays civilians and military honours, besides the inevitable badges of both Kim(s). I interviewed Mr. Cao during a brief stay in Spain.
Let’s start from the beginning. When and how did your passion for North Korea originate?
I was 15 years old. I was looking for a system that represented my ideals of egalitarian society. It was the time of the disappearance of the Soviet Union, everybody turned his eyes towards social democracy and no longer wanted to call himself “communist”. Principles were on sale. I studied the patterns of Vietnam, China and Cuba. But North Korea was taboo even for the most radical left. It was in Madrid that I got in touch for the first time with three North Korean families who represented the country in the World Tourism Organization. I obtained material about North Korea and began to cultivate my interest.
About your transition from ardent admirer to North Korean government’s official. How did you win the confidence of the regime?
It was a long journey that lasted ten years until – in 2002 – Pyongyang recognized me as a Special Delegate. My dream had always been working for a real socialist project. I felt totally identified with North Korea not only ideologically but also in spirit and culture. At first, I met with a climate of suspicion and my interlocutors had legitimate doubts about my real abilities. But in North Korea if you are able to pursue your proposals with success, then you eventually get a unanimous support. After many years of efforts in promoting educational and cultural projects, the turning point was the creation of the official website of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 2000, the first communication channel between Korea and the world. Once obtained the authorization from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture, Kim Jong-il himself gave his approval. By law, it’s impossible to represent the country if you weren’t born in North Korea. In my case, the authorities made an exception by acknowledging that I had shown a willingness to truly realize my dream, to work for them. I also want to point out that the North Korean government never paid me any money and that all the positions I hold are honorary.
What exactly are your duties in Pyongyang? What offices do you hold?
I’m performing all the functions of a worldwide ambassador, with diplomatic, cultural and commercial responsibilities. In general I take charge of
welcoming foreign delegations, resolving logistical problems when diplomats are in Pyongyang, fostering relationships and twinnings with political representatives interested in knowing North Korea’s reality. I’m also acting as spokesman for the government in front of international media. It’s a multiple assignment that didn’t exist before.
What is your level of participation in government business in DPRK? Do you attend official meetings? Are you consulted by top government officials on specific issues?
I’m working for the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, which depends both on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture. I regularly meet with the main representatives of the state, including the People’s Assembly President Kim Yong-nam, and several ministerial officials.
How many members and premises does Korean Friendship Association (KFA) have? How do you finance yourselves?
We are 9000 associates in 120 countries, but we’ve just 3 operating offices. Almost all the money comes from my pocket. Otherwise we are funding ourselves through the sales of our gadgets and the commissions on the contracts we negotiate for the North Korean government, but the latter is a relatively small source of income. For example, in Italy we’ve just signed an agreement with Indesit, for the supply of low cost appliances to our people. Like everyone, we too are looking for quality products and that’s why we prefer to work with European companies rather than with China.
What are KFA main goals?
To show the reality of our country and approach anyone interested in knowing it. Of course, it’s indispensable that people respect North Korea, don’t have hostile purposes and don’t insult us.
As you surely know, U.S. are enforcing sanctions against Bank Delta Asia, based in Macau, which is considered a laundering centre of funds originating from North Korean government’s illegal activities. What are KFA links with this financial entity?
The KFA doesn’t have any bank accounts abroad. As I’ve already said, all the money comes from small businesses or from my personal account, my work and my investments. Besides, the problem of Bank Delta Asia is now outdated. U.S. accusations have been proved baseless and when Washington shifted its stance from aggression to dialogue, current accounts were unblocked. It happened a few months ago.
How much time do you stay in North Korea in a year?
About seven months in North Korea and the rest of the time abroad for government missions.
Do you join North Korean diplomats in the meetings with foreign politicians?
Rarely. I work with North Korean ambassadors but I don’t directly take part in diplomatic meetings abroad.
Tell me about your last missions.
Last November I travelled to Canada to deal with a major pharmaceutical company about the supply of medicines to our country: active principles and other chemicals elements. We are also working on some projects related to renewable energy with Italian counterparts.
Do you manage some economic activity in North Korea?
No personal business at all.
Can you describe your typical day when you are in Pyongyang?
I get up at 7 a.m., I have breakfast and go to work, like everyone. After meeting with departmental directors to review the agenda of the day, usually I supervise foreign delegations visiting Pyongyang during their meetings with our ministers. North Korean leaders speak basic English and often I have to act as an intermediary. Kim Jong-il instead speaks fluent English, Russian and Chinese, in addition to Korean language.
Where do you live in Pyongyang?
I’m living in a small apartment near Koryo Hotel in downtown Pyongyang, a few steps from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I can go to work by walking, even if all government officials have access to the official car.
When you’re not working what do you do in Pyongyang?
I don’t have a lot of free time. We work from Monday to Sunday, usually ending up at 1 a.m. Sometimes the meetings continue at restaurant in the night.
You were rewarded with North Korean nationality. But what does it mean to be a North Korean citizen?
It means fighting for independence and for the preservation of our country’s culture. It’s an obligation to create something not just for personal gain but for the whole community.
Is it true that people in Pyongyang recognize you in the streets? What do they tell you?
It’s true. I’m popular for my participations in television programs and for the speeches I give on national channels or at the stadium. I also sing Korean songs for the people at public gatherings. They treat me with affection and admiration, like one of them, a Comrade like any other. In North Korea there are no social differences and a Party leader is the same as an ordinary citizen.
Do you correctly speak Korean?
No, I’m still learning it. With my colleagues we speak English and I sing the hymns by heart. My editorials for the Rodong Sinmun are written in English and then translated.
Let’s talk about customs. What are the moral characteristics of North Korean society?
First of all, respect for the family, the elderly, and generally for our neighbours. In the South this no longer exists because of Western influence and American cultural imperialism.
What are all those decorations on your uniform?
Civilian and military honours. The International Order for Cultural Activities, the Order of National Flag for my social involvement and a medal for work merits.
Did you fight in the North Korean army?
Of course not. But my military honour is a recognition given only to the elite military units. I got it in Panmunjom from an army colonel. From his heart to mine.
Have you ever received any gifts from Kim Jong-il?
Yes, he presented me with a porcelain tea-service.
Don’t you feel you are a privileged?
No, because my foreign national condition has always caused more difficulties than advantages to me. Nobody in history has achieved what I’ve achieved. I had everything against me. When everybody told me that it was an impossible dream, I replied with Kim Jong-il’s words that the term “impossible” doesn’t exist in Korean language. And I’ve proved it. Every North Korean citizen has access to government positions, but – in theory – no foreigners.
Every North Korean citizen? Are you sure? Who selects the ruling class in North Korea?
The people, through elections held every four years, otherwise the system could not subsist.
But, for example, if I work in a shoe factory and I want to join the Party and begin a political career, what should I do?
You should talk to your Comrades in your work unit during the rest, explaining your intentions and asking for their support. They will propose your candidature to the Supreme People’s Assembly and will vote you. You can run for a seat in one of the three existing parties.
Sure, there is not only the Workers’ Party in North Korean political system. But things are not like in the West: there are no opposition parties, no struggling for power, all the political forces are complementary in the legislative process.
How many members does the Workers’ Party have?
About six million. But any person can attend the Party meetings, even without being registered.
There’s a story going around about you. They say that some years ago you threatened Andrew Morse, a reporter from ABC, because of a critical report on North Korea. And that you entered his hotel room to break his computer. How was it really?
American journalists are not allowed to Pyongyang without a special visa. I did him a favour, putting my own reputation at stake. I repeatedly warned him that he could not take photos of strategic targets such as military facilities or railway stations. From the start he began to behave in an unorthodox manner, disregarding my instructions. He had his own goals: collecting sensitive informations to sell to the FBI or the U.S. government. I had no choice but to act and seize the illegal material after discovering it.
Do you really believe that an American journalist could be willing to sell informations to his government?
Of course, also because this is the only way to travel to North Korea out of the restrictions applied to American tourists. For us, every tourist is a potential spy. Those who enter North Korea as tourists cannot see almost anything.
(End Part 1)