Alejandro Cao de Benos, 38, is believed to be the only Westerner ever employed by the North Korean government. He’s a Spanish aristocrat, born to a family of landed gentry in northeast Spain, where he agreed to meet NPR for an interview one recent afternoon.
“I consider myself as [much] Spanish as Korean 50-50. This is my country of birth, and North Korea is my country of adoption,” says Cao de Benos, who also goes by the Korean name Cho Son Il, which means “Korea is one.”
For the past 11 years, he has held the title of special delegate for North Korea’s Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. It’s an unpaid gig. He earns money as an IT consultant, working in the past in Palo Alto, Calif., and the Spanish capital, Madrid. He pays his own way to North Korea, where he works six months a year as a minder for foreign visitors. The rest of the year he gives presentations about North Korea at universities across Europe, and tries to drum up business for the ailing regime. It’s an uphill battle, he admits.
Cao de Benos adopted North Korean ideology as a teenager, after his family fortune was squandered. His grandfather had made a series of bad investments. So his dad went from a nobleman to someone who had to find a job. The family moved to Andalusia, in southern Spain, a socialist stronghold at the time, when he was 15.
“While my friends were interested in football and things like that, I was much more interested in philosophy and politics,” he said. “Obviously first I got knowledge of Marxism and Leninism, but I heard that there was a country which had another kind of socialism another kind of experiment based on their own culture and history and that was North Korea.”
Cao de Benos speaks passionately about what draws him to Pyongyang year after year. He has an apartment there, where he sometimes even celebrates Christmas. “Society and life is completely different. In North Korea, there is no stock market, there is no gambling, there is no prostitution, and there are no drugs. Everybody leads a humble life, but with dignity,” he said. “You see the big difference? I was working in Palo Alto, Calif. and what I witnessed was yes, there are some beautiful houses and people with great cars, but there are a few people taking control over the properties and the companies, and they are the ones getting richer while the majority of the people the workers are getting poorer.”
He also acknowledges seeing a darker side of the isolated Communist country. “I’ve been in Pyongyang without electricity 24 hours [a day] without water,” Cao de Benos recalls. “I’ve been going with my comrades to pick up buckets of water that we will share among six or seven people and I have seen the situation. I have seen the starvation.”
But he blames that on natural disasters and most of all, Western sanctions. He says he believes that North Korean communism if left alone would do justice for a greater number of people than capitalism.