Spaniard is North Korea's face to outside world

26th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

A meeting with a North Korean delegation when he was a teenager in Spain set Alejandro Cao de Benos on the path to become a spokesman for the reclusive communist regime.

Among his tasks as a special delegate for North Korea's Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries is explaining Pyongyang's position on issues ranging from its nuclear activities to its suspected human rights violations to global media outlets like CNN and Al-Jazeera.

He also coordinates visits by foreign journalists to North Korea, one of the world's poorest and most isolated states, and puts firms wishing to do business with the Asian country in contact with the right government department.

"I act as a bridge between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the rest of the world," Cao de Benos told AFP at a hotel cafe in his hometown of Tarragona in northeastern Spain that offers sweeping views of the Mediterranean.

"I am really, really proud of being given this position, not for the post itself but because of the trust which the government has placed in me."

Gaining that trust was a long process, said the 36-year-old, who previously served two years in the Spanish army before becoming an IT consultant.

His first contact with officials from the North Korean regime came in 1990 when, at the age of 16, he approached the country's delegation to the United Nations' World Tourism Organisation, whose headquarters are in Madrid, at a conference in the Spanish capital.

A descendant of Spanish aristocrats who had lost their fortune two generations ago, he already identified himself as a communist and was intrigued by North Korea, in part he says because so little was known about the country.

"My first impressions were very, very positive. Even though I was just a kid they treated me like anyone else. Being used to class differences as they exist in the West, the way the North Koreans behaved really made an impact on me," he said, speaking in English.

Members of the delegation remained in contact and gave him books on North Korea and two years later he was invited to the country on a 10-day trip.

"It was a dream," he said. "I saw that they are trying to build a different model of the world and I wanted to be a part of this project."

His cooperation with North Korea deepened in 2000 when he set up the country's official web page along as well as the Korea Friendship Association, a club for foreign supporters of the country that now counts 9,000 members in 120 countries.

He believes the success of these projects led Kim Jong-Il to appoint Cao de Benos as a special delegate two years later on the North Korean leader's 60th birthday.

Cao de Benos, who wears a pin on his shirt bearing the image of Kim's father, Kim Il-Sung, the founding president of the North Korean regime who died in 1994, said he is the first and so far only foreigner to work for the country's communist government.

He has a North Korean passport and divides his time between North Korea and Spain.

But he stressed that Pyongyang has never paid him a salary and all the trips he makes as part of his job are paid out of his own pocket.

"I have never received a single cent. My position is absolutely honorary. I believe in the cause and would give my life for my ideas," he said, jabbing his index finger in the air for emphasis.

Five years ago he quit his IT related jobs to focus on his role as a special delegate and supports himself with an import-export business he runs.

He acknowledges that North Korea went through a difficult period in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, its key trading partner, when a famine killed hundreds of thousands of people but he said "there is not a single person starving in the country in 2010."

"Nowadays all shops have food even if it is still limited in variety," he said.

The picture he paints of life inside North Korea is at odds with that providing by international aid agencies.

The UN's World Food Programme estimated in March that 6.2 million out of North Korea's population of 23 million need food aid.

While North Korea says it offers free medical care for all its citizens, Amnesty International said in a report released in July that in reality patients have to pay doctors with cash, cigarettes, alcohol and food.

Cao de Benos dismisses these sorts of reports as propaganda against the country.

"North Korea cannot fight against CNN, the BBC. Our voice is very small," he said.

© 2010 AFP

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