Now that North Korea has opened a shiny new water park in east Pyongyang and its Premiere, Pak Pong Ju, has said it proves that everyone should always do whatever Kim Jong Un says, it may be a good time to consider the young Kim’s record. September marked exactly three years since he was designated heir apparent. Last month, the Washington D.C. think tank, the Center for Naval Analyses, said it wasn’t sure he’d been able to consolidate power in North Korea. But Alejandro Cao de Benos, the only Westerner ever employed by the North Korean government, is absolutely sure that’s not true and the dynasty is unchallenged.
Listening to Mr Cao de Benos on the BBC, it was striking how untroubled he sounded. The Supreme Leader continued supreme, he said. He is admittedly a propagandist for the DPRK (Yeats said the best like all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity but these days anyone who believes anything at all engages in propaganda for his views). But even so, there is good reason to pay some attention to what Mr Cao de Benos says.
First, he cannily admits to having seen North Korea’s darker side – 24 straight hours without electricity and water, for instance. And starvation.
Second, the 38-year-old Spanish aristocrat, who divides his time between his sunny Mediterranean hometown Tarragona, California (where he pursues his IT work) and Pyongyang, has had a fascination with North Korea for 23 years. For more than a decade, he has held the title of special delegate for North Korea’s Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. North Korean law had to be changed in order to grant him a passport and he bears an officially recognised North Korean name, Cho Son-il, which means Korea is One.
His unpaid job basically means he babysits foreign visitors to Pyongyang and talks about North Korea at European universities, as well as trying to interest businesses to invest in it. He blames Western sanctions for much of the misery in North Korea and says that were it free to be itself, the country would be a social paradise. According to reports, a 2006 Dutch documentary, Friends of Kim, showed Mr Cao de Benos leading a nationalist march inside North Korea two years earlier.
Those of an uncharitable bent might say (with a very unsubtle nod to Spain’s 40 years of fascism under Franco) that it would take a Spaniard to love North Korean authoritarianism. But Mr Cao de Benos says his adolescent interest in philosophy and politics led him towards Marxism and Leninism, till he heard about North Korean socialism based on its own culture and history.
Mr Cao de Benos, one of the few foreigners to have any familiarity with North Korea doesn’t say very much about North Korean missiles and military capabilities. Perhaps he doesn’t know very much. Foreign Policy’s Situation Report says the US military doesn’t know much about Kim Jong-un either, except for the following:
– he has the world’s fourth largest military (1.1 million)
– about 70 percent is “forward-deployed” or stationed south of Pyongyang
– it is committed to secrecy with an estimated 11,000 underground facilities
– it has the world’s largest special operations force (about 60,000 personnel and a further 130,000 who are like special operations forces).
The Spaniard doesn’t seem too worried though.