While news reports, defectors, and human rights organizations are
in close agreement on the harsh evidence of poverty, famine, and
torture in secretive North Korea, Alejandro Cao de Bens paints a
very different picture.
The representative from North Koreas Foreign Ministry describes a
country devoid of hunger, poverty, and political repression. Every
citizen receives their housing, salary, and plentiful sacks of rice
directly from the government, he says, pointing to photos of smiling
children and sharply-dressed adults ice skating, on smartphones,
and enjoying rides at amusement parks as proof of prosperity.
In North Korea people wouldn't ever want to leave the country, he
says, even if they could.
Aside from the fact that experts say the reality in the
impoverished food stricken country is much different for most of the
nation of 24 million, Mr. Cao de Benss carefully scripted picture
highlights a new tack the North is taking: Alongside the recent
escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula, Pyongyang has been
playing a softer international strategy with Cao de Benss help.
For North Korea, it is about expanding their influence to
anywhere it can, says Virginie Grzelczyk, a North Korea specialist
at Nottingham Trent University in the UK. This helps justify the
regime, and it is also seen as a beacon for some countries and some
Cao de Bens is North Koreas voice to the West. Jolly, tan, and
stout, he was born in Tarragona, Spain to a family with aristocratic
roots. He has often said that it was his lifelong dream to join the
North Korean revolution, and claims to be the only non-North Korean
to ever work for the government in an official capacity since it
changed a law to allow specific foreigners to take government posts.
Before serving as spokesperson to North Korea he worked as an IT
consultant in Pamplona and in the US.
In 2000 he founded the Korean Friendship Association, a worldwide
network of sympathizers and supporters who lobby and speak on behalf
of the North Korean government. Though it's unclear how many members
they have, the KFA claims to have more than 10,000 members in 120
countries. Cao de Bens has been touring Europe, giving a series of
speeches recently in an effort to provide an alternate vision of
North Korea that is more supportive of its government.
And that's what sympathizers are coming to hear, says Dr.
Grzelczyk. "It is about some sort of anticapitalist movement, a
search for an alternate vision of the world that could be
exemplified in a present form by North Koreas existence.
Pyongyang has long used its links with sympathetic political
organizations, as well as a worldwide network of study groups on the
juche (nationalistic) and songun (military first) ideologies, to
promote and legitimize the regime, says Grzelczyk.
Were in a propaganda battle with the West, so we supply our own
content, Cao de Bens proclaimed last weekend to a full auditorium,
including a group of teenagers and 20-somethings affiliated with the
Spanish collective of Communist youth, the organization that
sponsored the talk alongside the KFA.
Ninety-five percent of the news about North Korea is false or
propaganda, he said.
'We're in a propaganda battle with the West'
The only true news about the country, he told them, comes from
its mouthpiece agency, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). And
anyway, he added, a free press was a particularly Western concept
that didnt fit the North Korean model.
In one breath Cao de Bens claims that the common picture of
poverty, famine, malnutrition, discrimination, disappearances, and
political repression do not exist in North Korea, and in the next he
freely talks about the use of multiple years forced labor as a
punishment for certain crimes. …