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 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 Bens'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 Bens'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 Bens 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 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 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.
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"We're 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 didn't 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.