When Eternal President Kim Il Sung spoke of world revolution, he probably wasn’t picturing a portly, vegetarian, Spanish noble who works in IT, but there you go. In 2012, after decades of service, Alejandro Cao de Benós de Les y Pérez was officially made “Special Delegate of North Korea’s Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries”—a position which, he claims, was ratified by Kim Jong Il himself.
The role is strictly honorary, and doesn’t generate income for Cao de Benós, whose day job is as an IT consultant. He’s essentially the DPRK’s man in the west: connecting potential investors (although recent sanctions have stunted those opportunities) and assisting foreign journalists. He also heads the Korean Friendship Association (KFA), which brings together like-minded acolytes from around the world. According to Cao de Benós, who is fresh from the KFA’s conference in Barcelona, the group has over 17,000 members from 125 countries.
Cao de Benós comes from Spanish nobility and, despite being a communist, seems drawn to pomp and ceremony. At 16, in 1990, disillusioned with mainstream politics, he was invited by North Korean representatives to a Madrid event celebrating the state’s foundation. “There were trade unionists, United Nations personnel, ambassadors… I was just a kid at this high diplomatic reception,” he recalls. “Then a [DPRK] representative took me into a separate room to answer all my questions and gave me books and music from the country… I became fascinated.” Two years later, Cao de Benós visited Pyongyang—he’s since returned over 80 times, though he still hasn’t learnt Korean.
Initially, Cao de Benós wanted to stay in North Korea, even to join the People’s Army, but an attaché told him, “If you want to help North Korea, we need you outside. Only you understand western culture and can act as a bridge between Korea and the rest of the world.” After that, Cao de Benós returned to Spain to “suffer every day in the capitalist jungle.” From there, while working nightshifts at a gas station in Granada, he set up the KFA. In 2000, he launched the country’s first official website, korea-dpr.com, which resembled a point-and-click adventure game circa 1987.
Obviously, being “the North Korea guy” has its drawbacks. One is that most people disagree with you. Cao de Benós dismisses Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch—which called North Korea “one of the most repressive countries in the world”—as “propaganda lobbies disguised as NGOs.” Likewise, he believes many North Korean defectors are actually South Koreans seeking fame and fortune, and that Otto Warmbier—the American student sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster on a Pyongyang visit before falling into a vegetative state and later dying—was a self-confessed spy.
He’s also run up against sting operations and criminal charges. Cao de Benós is banned from leaving Spain because of what he’s convinced are politically motivated firearm charges. In 2022 the FBI issued an arrest warrant, claiming he worked to illegally provide cryptocurrency services to the DPRK. “My lawyers are writing to them…” he says, “this law doesn’t exist in Europe or Spain.” Then there was The Mole (2020), where Cao de Benós appears to have been duped by Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger into assisting a fictional businessman in what transpires to be a plan to produce weapons and drugs via an underground factory disguised as a luxury resort in Uganda.
Cao de Benós says he was playing along in order “to pull the strings and see who was behind [the setup].” He describes Brügger as a “racist” and a “rich, arrogant man”.
Cao de Benós’s love for North Korea isn’t unconditional; it’s contingent on it not “adopting capitalism” like China or Vietnam. Even so, I wish I loved anything as much as he loves North Korea. He’s optimistic about the future, too, particularly if Trump is elected in November. “He’s a businessman,” Cao de Benós says of Trump, who once called Kim Jong Un “short and fat”; “he wants to focus on bettering his country and not invading others.” Cao de Benós ends by telling me he has a list of “balanced journalists”. I wonder if I’ve made the cut.