For love of Dear Leader: Spaniard’s mission is to show North to worldA quick Google search for the words “North Korea” turns up the country’s official Web page, and one might wonder since when North Korea has been on the Internet. What’s more intriguing is the person who runs it ― someone who is not North Korean.
Alejandro Cao de Benos de Les, an information technology consultant based in Barcelona, Spain, founded the Web site in 2000 and is its administrator. The 30-year-old is also the founder and president of the Korea Friendship Association, a 3,800-member organization that promotes North Korea in 75 countries.
Mr. Cao de Benos is perhaps one of North Korea’s most fervent fans, wearing a collarless, dark button-down suit in the country similar to those worn by its founder, Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994. He also wears a lapel pin of the so-called “Great Leader” when he visits North Korea while also praising current leader Kim Jong-il.
“I think leader Kim Jong-il is an example to follow,”said Mr. Cao de Benos. “Being a very humble person, he serves the people without caring for his own health, without sleeping. During the famine, he would only eat once a day.”
One might wonder how a Spanish man developed such a relationship with North Korea. He introduces himself as a “special delegate” of North Korea, a relationship that began when he was invited to a photo exhibit as a 15-year-old, held by the North Korean government in Madrid in 1990.
“I was very much interested in Asian culture and history as well as politics,” said Mr. Cao de Benos, who is single and has no family ties to North Korea. “So I traveled to Madrid, where I made my first North Korean friends and gathered books and videos that raised my interest in all aspects of the country. Soon, I fell in love with Korea and found the society that I always dreamed of.”
The same year, Mr. Cao de Benos founded a small association. Later, he began holding several conferences and public exhibitions. In December 2000, he founded North Korea’s first official Web page after Pyongyang approved. In 2002, Mr. Cao de benos received a mandate from Vice President Yang Hyong-sop naming him as a special delegate of the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. His position was finally approved by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, he said.
Mr. Cao de Benos said he regularly meets with senior ministers, deputies of the Supreme People’s Assembly and North Korean Vice-President Yang Hyong-sop. He also said he regularly communicates with Kim Jong-il but won’t say how.
He is a dual citizen of both Spain and North Korea. His Korean name, “Zo Sun-il,” means “Korea is one.” He said North Korea has given him many responsibilities, and his motivation to work for the North is genuine.
“All my positions in the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name] are honorary and I don’t receive salary for my work,” he said
Mr. Cao de Benos has made it his mission to promote North Korea’s message to the outside world. “Since, the DPRK doesn’t have many missions in foreign countries and representatives overseas, my duties involve diplomatic issues, visas, culture, tourism, business, etc.,” he said. “I basically act as a bridge between Pyongyang and the rest of the world.”
That includes promoting North Korea’s “juche,” or self-reliance political philosophy, and “songun jongchi” or military-first policy. Mr. Cao de Benos describes himself as a strong follower, saying that his study of Spain’s capitalist system and North Korea’s socialist system “has given me knowledge of the two realities and people.”
He affirms two serious goals: He wants to contribute to peace and understanding between North Korea and other nations while protecting the country’s social system and pursuing what he terms “independent” unification of the two Koreas. He does that through the Korea Friendship Association, a group that promotes Korean culture and North Korea through the Internet, international conferences and press articles. The group receives 20 new membership applications on average each day, he said.
Interest in the association spiked after the start of the war in Iraq. The “world has witnessed how far the manipulation of the media can reach for materialist interests,” he said. “We’re starting to break the U.S. monopoly of information.” Funded on $500 per month, the Web page gets around 150,000 hits per day and more than 300,000 when there is breaking news about North Korea, Mr. Cao de benos said.
It also tackles the core issues surrounding the division of the Koreas. Last year, the KFA organized visits to North Korea for journalists and tourists, taking visitors to main monuments but also taking them into the fields for “solidarity delegations” with North Korean peasants “to get the taste of the daily life in the DPRK.”
Roger van der Linde, 28, is a Dutch salesman who went on a KFA trip to North Korea last summer. Mr. Linde found the organization through the Internet and became interested since he had spent a year studying in Seoul.
“What I will remember most are the two ‘peace and reunification’ marches in Pyongyang and Kaesong, which saw numbers of people gathered on the streets waving and cheering, while carrying banners calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South,” Mr. van der Linde said. “I found it a very surreal experience.”
Mr. van der Linde said there was one more unforgettable event during the trip.
“There was a confrontation between Mr. Cao de Benos and Andrew Morse [an ABC News television producer],” he said. “Mr. Morse got accused of using ‘sensational’ language during a news report on a farm. In Pyongyang, Mr. Cao de Benos trashed Mr. Morse’s hotel room and confiscated all his film and suspended Mr. Morse from reporting.”
About the incident, Mr. Cao de Benos said, “Mr. Morse broke almost every rule specified beforehand, including the DPRK law. So after several warnings that he completely ignored, appropriate measures were taken.”
Another tourist who went on the same trip but did not want to be identified said Mr. Cao de Benos somewhat apologized to the entire tour group about the incident.
Mr. van der Linde said it was difficult to assess the power structure between the KFA and the North Korean authorities.
“I think the KFA is just a propaganda tool for the North Korean government,” he said. “The activities we participated in were all arranged by the North Korean authorities.”
This year, Mr. Cao de Benos said his schedule is nearly full, and he will lead several tours in the coming months. But he said some changes will be made for this year’s trip.
“The rules will be stricter in terms of behavior in respect of laws in the hosting country,” said Mr. Cao de benos. “Some people may visit the DPRK with the typical ‘first-world arrogance’ and they must remove it before landing in Sunan airport.”
Mr. Cao de Benos said many of the notions held by the West about North Korea are simply incorrect. During the times of famine in the 1990s, he said he noticed that even high-ranking officials in the government made sacrifices for the common good.
“If the government’s high ranks had a life of luxury while the normal people suffered such disaster, don’t you think the people would revolt or the society would be divided?” asked Mr. Cao de benos. “If the media talks so much about Romania, Poland or Russia revolting against a privileged communist class, why don’t North Koreans do the same? It is because they love their leaders, the country, the social system and they see with their own eyes that we all share tears or smiles.”
Mr. Cao de Benos asserts that people should not listen to outside, third-party sources that purport to know about North Korea. “How can a person located inside a New York office write and talk about a country or culture that he completely ignores?” he asked.
by Choi Sun-young