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 Benós paints a very different picture.
The representative from North Korea’s 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 Benós’s 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 Benós’s 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 people.”
Cao de Benós is North Korea’s 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 Benós 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 Korea’s 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.
“We’re in a propaganda battle with the West, so we supply our own content,” Cao de Benós 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 didn’t fit the North Korean model.
In one breath Cao de Benós 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.
Experts say that despite Cao de Benós's assertions, North Korea's conditions are bleak.
“The situation in North Korea is abysmal,” says Rajiv Narayan, an East Asia researcher for Amnesty International. “One cannot ignore that North Korea has gone through an extreme food crisis and hundreds of thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have gone over the border to China and many were forcibly returned back.”
“North Korea is still in a difficult economic situation and will be seeking partnerships with various countries in order to develop,” Grzelczyk says, pointing to the recently increasing number of trade deals between EU countries and Pyongyang. “So a PR offensive that erases and negates the harsh realities of North Korean lives is definitely welcomed by the regime.”
Cao de Benós's narrative echoes one that enticed many ethnic Koreans to return to North Korea at the end of World War II and even after the Korean War. It's one that many defectors have said is taught to North Koreans: North Korea only wants to defend itself, its national ideology, and its way of life in the face of greedy and powerful adversaries. The conflict is a type of cold war-era David and Goliath, with an aggressive United States bent on regime change in the name of capitalism, poised to invade at any time.
Every aggressive action on behalf of North Korea, Cao de Benós argues, has been direct retaliation for an American action or policy. A nuclear weapons program, he says, was first developed in North Korea in response to a contemplated invasion by the Clinton administration, and not the other way around as Western history books have it.
“North Korea always acts like a mirror of American policy,” he said, pointing out that the recent nullification by North of the 60-year-old Korean War armistice occurred in response to UN sanctions. “Aggression will be met with aggression and peace will be met with peace.”
With that in mind, Friday's signing of a mutual defense treaty between the US and South Korea obligating the US military to defend South Korea if a war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, will likely see some response from the North, say analysts.
Prison camps, forced disappearances, restrictions
Though Amnesty International has not had direct access to North Korea since 1995, the group's research has been conducted via interviews with North Koreans who have fled the country and a few who remain inside, as well as extensive satellite imagery, Narayan explains.
“There was some expectation that things might improve with the new leader,” he adds, referring to hopes that Kim Jong-un would begin opening up the North since taking power. But according to Amnesty International's research, prison camps are expanding and the forced disappearances and restrictions of movement, expression, and political organization are ongoing.
The United Nations Human Rights Council voted last week in favor of a resolution to establish a commission concerning the human rights situation in North Korea. The vote sends a strong signal to Pyongyang and, many analysts say, could lead to greater access within the country for human rights monitors and journalists.
Will it have an effect on the North?
“We don’t dance to the international community’s song,” says Cao de Benós. “We dance to our own.”