N. Korea finds a purpose for small group of ‘friends’

As North Korea tells it, Kim Jong Il has grieving friends across the world. There are mourners for the late leader in Mongolia and broken hearts in Bangladesh. The Ugandans laid wreaths before Kim’s portrait. The Brits sent flowers for Kim’s posthumous 70th birthday bash.

These friends are mentioned almost daily in articles published by North Korea’s state-run media, as if to tell people that the outside world misses Kim — and supports his son and heir — with every bit of the fervor that people inside the country are expected to.

“Kim Jong Il’s Feats Praised by Foreign Organizations,” one recent headline read.

“Kim Jong Il’s Humanity Admired by World People,” read another.

There’s a kernel of truth in that rhetoric. Even in the many countries that don’t formally support the Kims, there are often a few hundred people, or at least a few dozen, who do. They represent what analysts say is the sum of North Korea’s decades-long effort, begun during the Cold War, to export its ideology and cultivate a global network of allies.

National branches of the Korean Friendship Association, which claims 15,000 members, exist as far less than consulates, just slightly more than fan clubs. They operate without official funding, and, in some cases, members communicate only by Internet mailing lists.

The groups don’t send much foreign cash to Pyongyang. They don’t gather intelligence or run persuasion campaigns. But they hold one purpose, seen most clearly in recent weeks: to help strengthen the Kim family’s cult of personality.

“At one point, these groups were a conduit of actual [socialist] thought, and they were part of a real political network,” said Hazel Smith, a professor at Cranfield University in England and a security expert who lived in North Korea for three years. “But now it’s like an appendix. The Cold War is over, and they are just a resource for domestic purposes.”

Without exception, the friendship groups do not advocate for reform within North Korea; they applaud the country’s constancy, and their news releases read much like Pyongyang’s propaganda. The chairman of Peru’s friendship group recently called Kim a “steadfast” defender of peace, according to North Korea’s report of the statement. The president of France’s friendship group said Kim performed “immortal feats” to build a thriving nation.

But in reality, some experts say, the friendship associations endure less because of ideology than because of a perk: Members get to travel occasionally to the world’s most isolated country — provided they pay several thousand dollars.

Those trips represent the most glamorous form of tourism that an impoverished state can offer. People who have made the trips say travelers are greeted by saluting party members on the Pyongyang airport tarmac. They eat elaborate meals and are chauffeured by beautiful women; their comings and goings often end up as blurbs in the newspaper.

“I think they like the attention they get,” said Curtis Melvin, a George Washington University graduate who runs a North Korea economy blog and twice went as a guest on friendship tours, although he is not a member of the association. “They get to go there and pretend they’re a VIP.”

Friendship association members, Melvin said, are largely middle-aged and skew heavily male. But the group also attracts political opposites. Extreme leftists say they like North Korea’s socialist ideology. Extreme rightists say they sympathize with North Korea’s uber-nationalism, militancy and self-reliance.

The man who holds the membership together is Alejandro Cao de Benos, a 37-year-old Spaniard anointed by North Korean authorities as the de facto Western spokesman for Kim Jong Il’s ideologies. (The North, Cao de Benos said in a recent interview, will become a socialist utopia in “seven to eight years maximum.”)

As the Mao-suited chairman of the association, Cao de Benos takes tour groups into the North, guiding visitors to mausoleums and museums and meetings with mid-level authorities.

A 2006 documentary, “Friends of Kim,” detailed a Cao de Benos-led trip in which several tourists, during 12 days in the North, changed their mind about the Workers’ Paradise. One Brit was an ardent fan of North Korea-style socialism when the trip began. But after he saw the country’s problems up close — its food shortages, its disparity between the privileged few and the impoverished many — he said it was “dangerous” to describe Pyongyang as a socialist utopia because it gives the world a misleading message.

Although the trips have sometimes backfired, Cao de Benos retains his trusted position within the North. He traveled to Pyongyang for a Feb. 16 celebration — the 70th anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s birth — that he said included a figure-skating performance and military parade.

He plans to return for an even larger celebration, the April 15 festival to commemorate the 100th birthday of national founder Kim Il Sung, the eternal president. Because hotel rooms are limited, Cao de Benos said, he was told to select just 50 members from his global network of friends to travel with him.

“Everybody wants to go,” Cao de Benos said. “But I had to limit the number.”

He selected travelers based on their seniority in the group, he said, and their loyalty to the association. The party will include people from Singapore, Canada, Germany and Norway. “We have kind of a United Nations,” he said.

Chico Harlan covers personal economics as part of The Post's financial team.
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