Wanna Do Business in Pyongyang? Call North Korea’s Guy in Spain
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- The message from Dubai in late 2018 wasn’t unusual. It’s just part of the day for Alejandro Cao de Benós to open his email and find some intrepid capitalist who wants to do a little business in North Korea.
Recently, there was the one from a guy in Hawaii who wanted to open a McDonald’s in Pyongyang. That’s an easy no. Privately owned businesses are forbidden in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “No McDonald’s, no Kentucky Fried Chicken, no Burger King,” Cao de Benós says. Every so often it’s the head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Spain, asking if it’s finally all right to send over a wave of white shirts carrying the Book of Mormon, even though he knows that’s a nonstarter. Only those religions that existed in Korea before the DPRK’s formation in 1948 are allowed to operate in the country. Sometimes a lead seems real enough that Cao de Benós can pass it up the ladder from his desk in Tarragona, on Spain’s sunny east coast, to the North Korean Embassy in Madrid—or even to his contacts in Pyongyang.
At first glance, the Dubai email was one of those. An Elena Sanchez was writing from an investment firm called Baron Stone Capital. Her boss, Adrian Hong, hoped to meet at the embassy to discuss investment opportunities, ideally in mining.
It might seem strange that a banker in Dubai would email a Spaniard to talk about investments in Pyongyang, but such is the idiosyncrasy of doing business with North Korea.
“I receive this kind of request every day,” Cao de Benós tells me one afternoon in November. (Requests of late have been more to address rumors that Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un was in grave condition after heart surgery.) We’re walking around Tarragona during one of its infrequent rainy days. “I’m the only reachable person,” he says. He means that literally. Cao de Benós began as a teenage fanboy of North Korea’s socialist state and, over time, developed ties to the regime. In 2002, after he’d spent more than a decade as a volunteer cheerleader and propagandist, the nation’s late supreme leader, Kim Jong Il, made him a “special delegate” to the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries.
Official diplomacy is conducted through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And there are envoys at the United Nations. But business, science, culture, sports—basically anything outward-facing—goes through the committee. As the only non-Korean affiliated with the government, Cao de Benós says, he’s the primary contact for anyone in the West who wants to cold-call North Korea.
The woman in Dubai said her boss was looking for investments in “frontier markets.” Cao de Benós can help with a request like this. “We have many investment possibilities,” he says, naming mines, hotels, and IT. Or perhaps you don’t have a specific play. In this case, Cao de Benós might arrange a meeting with the Ministry of Foreign Trade. Even an American like me can invest if I’m willing to violate international sanctions. “We are happy to make business with you,” he says.
When Cao de Benós dug into Baron Stone, he couldn’t find any information on it. Sanchez was pushy, too. She responded to his chilly replies with what felt like a bribe: an offer to hire him as a consultant if he could facilitate introductions at the embassy. She then announced that Hong would soon be in Madrid and hoped to arrange a dinner with Cao de Benós and North Korea’s ambassador. Cao de Benós says he notified the embassy of the inquiries and registered his skepticism. He didn’t recommend a meeting.
A few weeks later, on Feb. 22, 2019, Hong showed up anyway. When an embassy worker came to the door, Hong and eight accomplices forced their way in.
For several hours, according to news reports, Hong and his team—who claimed to represent Free Joseon, a North Korean dissident group—menaced the staff. They isolated the only accredited North Korean diplomat in the basement, where they put a hood over his head and attempted to bully him into defecting. This effort failed, and at around 9:30 p.m. the gang took laptops and flash drives and fled in stolen diplomatic cars.
Media accounts speculated that the break-in was an attempt to disrupt the then-upcoming nuclear talks between President Trump and Kim Jong Un in Vietnam. The group had supposedly targeted Madrid because North Korea’s top negotiator, Kim Hyok Chol, was previously ambassador to Spain.
North Korea had no official comment. Cao de Benós theorizes “it was the CIA” and tells me this was “confirmed” by friends in the “Spanish intelligence service.” The CIA has denied involvement. Hong, sought by Spanish authorities on unspecified charges, is still at large.
Cao de Benós assumes that interest in Hong will fade, because no one cares about the treatment of North Korean diplomats. He’s also sure that the sloppy assault was a Plan B. The real plan, he says, was that dinner Sanchez had tried to set up. It’s easier and cleaner to kidnap a diplomat leaving a restaurant.
Which means: He might have been snatched, too?
Cao de Benós laughs and pats his belly. He’s a little plump; there’s something vaguely Ted Cruz-ish about him. “I’m too big,” he says. “They have to feed me too much.” More important, he’s a Spanish citizen and quasi-famous. Taking him would be bad PR. “I’m too much of a public person.”
Alejandro Cao de Benós seems like a lot of name, but it’s actually shortened. The whole banana—Alejandro Cao de Benós de Les y Pérez—is unwieldy for daily use and off-brand, signifying the aristocratic lineage of Spain’s most famous socialist.
He didn’t grow up rich, but his family was once powerful, he says. An ancestor conquered land on the French border and claimed it for the Spanish king, who rewarded him with the title of Barón de Les. Cao de Benós, as the eldest male heir, has claim to this title, as well as Marqués de Rosalmonte, Conde de Argelejo, and Marqués de Diezma y la Hinojosa.
Today, the titles carry no privileges. All the wealth is gone, too, because his paternal grandfather blew the fortune on poor investments and gambling. Cao de Benós could claim the honorifics, but he’d have to ask the king’s permission and pay a fee.
His father was a chemist who married and raised his son in a happy, middle-class home. After high school, Cao de Benós served three years as an MP in Spain’s air force, but the whole time his heart was in North Korea.
He has only honorary citizenship in the country, he says. To become a North Korean citizen, Cao de Benós would have to renounce Spain, which would mean giving up a free life on the Spanish coast and moving to the world’s most closed-off country. This isn’t a dealbreaker for him. “It’s what I wanted since I’m 13,” he says, over a plate of vegetable paella (Cao de Benós is vegetarian) in Tarragona’s old quarter, during one of three days’ worth of conversations in which he rhapsodizes about the famously brutal and authoritarian regime. That’s when he read about North Korea’s particular—in his view, pure—form of socialism and fell in love. At 16, he flew to Pyongyang, having saved up for the flight by working at a gas station. “I found a very clean society with very nice people,” he recalls. “And then, I made up my mind: I want to help Korea.”
His first step was to found the Korean Friendship Association, or KFA. Cao de Benós persuaded high school pals to join, not out of a shared affinity for socialism, but because he offered Coca-Cola and karaoke at meetings. His father didn’t approve. “He wanted to push me out of home, because he worried something will happen to the family because of my work,” Cao de Benós says. “I had a tough time.” It was a tough time to be an aspiring socialist, period. This was the early 1990s, when Eastern Europe was falling. “I was the only one going against direction,” he says.
In 2000, Cao de Benós created North Korea’s first official website, korea-dpr.com, despite knowing just rudimentary web design, he says. This was the country’s only outwardly facing government site in English, he adds, until it started its own in 2012, meaning that any Westerner who tried to contact North Korea online from 2000 to 2012 was writing to one guy in Spain.
Hundreds of thousands of people visited the primitive site in its first year, occasionally overwhelming the limited bandwidth Cao de Benós could afford on his monthly budget of €20. His work also attracted media attention, especially after U.S. journalists learned who was behind the janky North Korean website that had just appeared in the world one day.
By the time Cao de Benós returned to Pyongyang in 2001 with a group of 20 “delegates” from the KFA, he says his organization had thousands of members; it now has more than 16,000 across 120 countries. Still, he ached to be more than a friend. Cao de Benós wanted to be “part of the project,” he says, and offered to move to North Korea and join the army. Officials there told him the country had plenty of soldiers. What it didn’t have was a European cultural envoy. He was disappointed but saw the logic. “I will do what the country needs me to do, which is international relations,” he says. “I will sacrifice myself in the capitalist jungle and fight my way.”
On Feb. 16, 2002, Kim Jong Il gave Cao de Benós his official appointment. “The only non-Korean working for the government,” he says, with pride. “First and only in history.”
Cao de Benós is sometimes portrayed as a glorified tour guide—the man you call to book a trip to Pyongyang—but “my work is not tourism,” he says. “My work is to bring VIPs.” He did not arrange visits by former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter—or, for that matter, by Dennis Rodman, the eccentric former basketball star. Those came through the UN mission, and Cao de Benós is fine with that. Rodman was a “huge headache,” he says.
But he did organize North Korea’s first cryptocurrency conference. For a country banished from the global banking system, crypto has obvious appeal. The gathering was held in April 2019 at the glittering Pyongyang Sci-Tech Complex—which looks, from above, like an atom—and was open to anyone who wanted to apply for an invitation, except for journalists and residents of South Korea, Japan, and Israel.
Eight foreigners attended, including Italian information-security specialist Fabio Pietrosanti. He says the two-day event was strange: The English talks were translated into Korean with a delay, forcing speakers to pause after every line, and participants “were not allowed to interact with a single North Korean.”
Prominent American crypto specialist Virgil Griffith was another guest. Griffith flew home to Singapore with official state souvenirs—patriotic posters and knickknacks—and “went straight to the [U.S.] embassy to say, ‘I have been to North Korea, and I give you some gifts,’ ” Cao de Benós tells me, breaking into a grin. The decision was unwise, in his opinion.
On Nov. 28, three weeks after my visit to Spain, Griffith was arrested in Los Angeles and charged with violating U.S. sanctions for advising North Korea on bitcoin mining. He faces 20 years in prison and has pleaded not guilty.
Pietrosanti had a more fruitful trip. He’d been looking for cheap technical talent to build an open-source medical-software tool (legal, under UN sanctions), and Cao de Benós helped him set up meetings. Shortly thereafter, Pietrosanti paid €7,100 (about $7,700) for four months of design work by four programmers. “I can’t say that they are super-high-quality, but they were much better than many Indians I’ve worked with,” he says.
What impressed him most is that the programmers are able to work despite being cut off from the internet, as nearly all North Korean citizens are. When they need technical information, the programmers told Pietrosanti, they find it offline. He’s now contemplating establishing a permanent research and design center there; €30,000, he figures, would pay for five or six full-time developers for a year.
Cao de Benós says that other influential people, including Americans, have visited Pyongyang at his invitation, but they rarely talk about it. This frustrates him. He wishes they would scream from the rooftops of the fantastic visits that obliterate their preexisting biases about Asia’s utopia.
A former defense minister from a European nation that Cao de Benós won’t name recently contacted him to inquire about a trip, he says. This was an opportunity for promotion, to “break the propaganda that you cannot travel to North Korea—or, you know, that we will kill you,” he says. “But they don’t want that, because they know the problem it will create.” Cao de Benós gets it. When he built the North Korean website, he had a good job doing IT. But after word about his side hustle got out, he was reprimanded. He told his bosses it was just a hobby. “Whenever I go home, instead of playing football, or playing on the computer, I’m working for Korea from 7 or 8 p.m. until 2 or 3 a.m.,” he told them. “It is my passion.” The company wasn’t having it. It urged Cao de Benós to quit, and he did in exchange for severance. He hasn’t worked since 2005. “I have to fight to survive, but that’s the rule of the capitalist jungle,” he says.
His position carries no salary. North Korea doesn’t compensate him directly in any way, he says; he makes money by commission. When a company signs a deal to invest with North Korea, Cao de Benós takes what he calls a “tiny fraction” from the foreigner’s side. This pays his bills, usually, though he’s been unable to arrange meetings during the coronavirus pandemic. “I’m doing this for ideology and not for other interests,” he says. If the KFA were a business, he’d charge members €10 a month and be rich.
Instead, he’s often broke. Sometimes, “it can be two months, and I don’t have a single cent,” he says. In those cases, month three gets hairy, and he more actively pursues deals. But every deal is fraught. One side often backs out, because of the complexities of trying to make business in a country under international sanctions.
It helps that he lives frugally in a 60-square-meter (650-square-foot) house with a €600 monthly mortgage on a few acres of wooded hillside. “There is a phrase that I like to use,” he says. “The rich person is not the one who has more money, but the one that needs less. I don’t need fancy cars, and I don’t spend money going to a disco.” He sees a movie once every couple of months. He doesn’t drink or smoke.
Cao de Benós must be entrepreneurial to navigate this peculiar path. He brokers relationships between capitalists and a regime that dislikes them but not their money. As such, he runs into bureaucratic roadblocks. Persistence is a prerequisite, immunity to frustration a necessity.
The easiest deals to consummate, he says, often involve North Korea’s natural resources. That’s why the Adrian Hong request to talk about mining seemed reasonable at first. Also, there are investments to be made in textiles, pharmaceutical research, and heavy industry. Lately, Cao de Benós says he’s fostered agreements with European companies to use cheap, skilled labor on technology projects. “We develop a lot of apps for Android and iOS, and very cheap,” he says. “And we are very strong in animation. We export a lot for all kinds of modern cartoons.”
He cites an example, but obliquely: “Let’s say you’re making a cartoon, and you are outsourcing the work. So you go to Romania, because you know it’s very cheap.” But the Romanian company knows of an even cheaper option. Its representative flies to Pyongyang and makes a deal for the same work at half the cost—and then gets 50% of the fee without employing anyone. “This has happened,” he says. He will not name movies. Nor popular video games. North Korean labor is also behind websites and crypto, he says. The shadow hands of globally sanctioned socialist labor are all around us.
Cao de Benós is famous in North Korea. He has a Korean name—Cho Son Il, meaning “Korea is one country”—and a nickname—Changunim Chonsa, which means “dear soldier of the general,” the general being Kim Jong Il. North Koreans politely approach him in restaurants and “bring their glasses of wine to cheer with me,” he says. (He speaks only a little Korean, saying he doesn’t have time to learn, and conducts business with the cultural committee in English.)
Spaniards, however, “will stop me to talk and to take selfies. They’re kind of invasive in the private area, because they see you in the TV, and they think they know you.”
I witness two women approach him at a cafe. They say something in, I think, Korean. “Yes,” he confirms after the women leave. “They thanked me for my work.”
Sometimes, fans show up at Pyongyang Cafe, a small space on the ground floor of an apartment building near Tarragona’s port. Cao de Benós opened the cafe—which served Korean foods, coffee and beer, and North Korean souvenirs—as a marketing opportunity in 2016, and for a year it was a minor tourist attraction. A KFA member owns the place, so there’s no rent. Still, what little business it did wasn’t enough to cover the monthly €2,000 in taxes and staff wages. Today, it’s just a place to hold KFA meetings and bring visitors like me.
He plops on a couch and talks about how people have the wrong ideas about North Korea and the U.S. The former isn’t bleak and miserable; the latter isn’t Eden. (Cao de Benós is a loyal mouthpiece. He rejects all questions about extrajudicial killings or humanitarian atrocities as propaganda: “The media is often reporting that we execute people, which is not true,” he claims.)
He says he’s been to Palo Alto, and was worried for his safety after dark. He also stayed in New York City—the Bronx—once. And then there was Orlando.
That was in 2014, when Cao de Benós went to Florida to film a scene for a documentary, The Propaganda Game, in which he plays a major role. The Spanish director, Álvaro Longoria, wanted to get Cao de Benós talking—in the U.S.—about what he calls “the famous film of the stupid Franco man.”
He means James, the actor, not Francisco, the fascist, and the film in question is The Interview, which Franco made with Seth Rogen. The Interview makes fun of North Korea and shows Kim Jong Un perishing in a helicopter crash. This indignity allegedly infuriated Kim so much that he ordered the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. and the release of documents.
Longoria liked the idea of having Cao de Benós mock these allegations on garishly American soil—next to the giant metal globe at Universal Studios Florida. (Why there and not outside, say, Sony headquarters is unclear. Longoria didn’t return requests for comment.) They shot it guerrilla-style, just two men and a small camera among the tourists. “I was explaining that it is known that the DPRK doesn’t care about that stupid movie,” Cao de Benós recalls. He was explaining it loudly enough that nervous tourists called security, and the Spaniards were ejected from the park. “At least I managed to see alligators,” he says. “That’s the good part of it.”
Public rants have harmed Cao de Benós before. A few years back he was standing along the Korean Demilitarized Zone with a Spanish journalist who asked him, on camera, how he felt about the presence of U.S. soldiers. Cao de Benós replied that he felt “very angry” about “the U.S. occupation” and that if necessary, “I will take the arms and push them out.” The footage set off a backlash in Spain that led to a raid on his home, the confiscation of two handguns that fired only rubber bullets, and the loss of his passport. He pleaded guilty to not having the required license for the guns. The case is under appeal, and he’s still unable to travel.
Consensus in the U.S. has been that North Korea was behind the Sony hack, but that’s not been proven. Cao de Benós is here to tell us all that the assertion is ridiculous. The country does have excellent hackers; targeting a movie studio would be a waste of their abilities.
It’s been three years since Cao de Benós has visited Pyongyang. He says he misses the place. He still wishes he could live there, where the only thing his life might lack is variety. He’d miss horror movies. “We don’t have good horror movies in North Korea, because you need special effects and a full industry behind that,” he says. “But will I sacrifice a horror movie once every two months for living in a place where I can leave my wallet, and nobody’s going to steal from me—where I will have a free mortgage. Because now I’m living on the edge. If I don’t have money at the end of this month, the bank kicks me out. I’m homeless. So what do you want, to see a horror movie or have a house guaranteed for life?”
Cao de Benós is an idealist. Hypocrisy irritates him. “That’s why I work for North Korea,” he says. “I know the president, vice president, and most of our ministers and leaders. I know how they live. I know how they behave. They are the ones who set the standard of honesty and being humble. If I found that any of them will accept a bribe, or saying one thing and doing the other, I will never work for our government. I told our president, ‘I will always serve the DPRK as long as we keep our ideology and our standard.’ The day that DPRK will change, like China, or when they accept bribes, I will say bye-bye.” (North Korea’s mission at the UN and the country’s embassy in Beijing didn’t respond to requests for comment on Cao de Benós’s relationship to the government. South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which is responsible for inter-Korean affairs, declined to comment.)
China, in particular, offends him. As a communist nation that now has a quasi-free market riddled with corruption, China is a cautionary tale of what could happen if North Korea opened its borders. If you ask Cao de Benós, China is a far worse place than the U.S. At least America is honest about what it is.
He’s not finished. This is important. “I will write a letter,” he says, “and renounce my position immediately. In the very moment that we allow private housing, or private land, or privatize education, or health care.”
Recent months have only reinforced Cao de Benós’s devotion. I tried calling him for comment about the pandemic and Kim Jong Un’s health. He was slow to reply, then apologized when he did, saying that he was “completely busy with so many interviews.” He offered to reply to questions by email.
While much of the Western world, including Spain, has been ravaged by Covid-19, North Korea, he wrote, is coronavirus-free. On Jan. 15, he says, he was asked by Pyongyang to “help secure medical equipment for the prevention” of the virus. On Jan. 22, North Korea closed its borders and imposed a 30-day quarantine on anyone entering the country. Cao de Benós says the government mass-produced masks and disinfectants; mobilized the army to “develop disinfection duties and tightly control the borders”; reached out to friendly nations and nongovernmental organizations for test kits and personal protective equipment; and put 20,000 people into quarantine.
“There has not been a single death or a case of a patient with Covid-19,” he says. Although that assertion was confirmed by the World Health Organization’s representative in Pyongyang, it seems impossible that this is true. North Korea borders China, its largest trading partner.
Contrast that to what he’s seen at home, in a society that prioritizes freedom of movement and the health of its businesses and isn’t easily locked down. “An absolute disaster,” he says. As of late April, Spain was still averaging more than 300 deaths a day, lacked adequate PPE, and was experiencing a shortage of some basic foods. Cao de Benós says when he visited a public hospital in mid-February, he was the only one wearing an advanced protective mask. “The fact that the politicians, doctors, and generals of the army and police in charge of overseeing the measures got the virus demonstrates how incapable they are to keep the population safe,” he says.
Regarding Kim’s health, he wrote, “there is no official comment.” However, “I can say that those rumors are false.” He pointed out that the source of the claim, which cited an anonymous person, was Daily NK, which I’d heard him complain about before. As evidence that it wasn’t true, he pointed me to a photo he’d shared with his 60,000 Twitter followers. It was of Kim smiling and looking as healthy as Kim ever looks, next to fighter planes—allegedly taken the day before this health crisis. “It is also interesting to see our Marshal Kim Jong Un watching the Air Force drill in perfect health just the day before he was supposed to have the ‘Heart operation,’ ” Cao de Benós wrote.
During my visit, I’d forgotten to ask if he and Kim had met. “I had the chance to shake his hand and be close to him in different state events,” he said, adding that a few letters had been exchanged through intermediaries. “But unfortunately I do not have a close friendship like President Trump says he has.” —With Li Jing, Sharon Cho, and Kanga Kong
Read more: How North Korea Just Might Pick a New Leader
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