Promising unprecedented access to North Korea, the pro-Pyongyang Korean Friendship Association (KFA) is charging significantly marked-up fees for bringing film-makers, artists and tourists to the country, sources familiar with the organization and its operations told NK News.
Despite lauding North Korea’s socialist credentials on its website, information obtained by NK News shows that the fees charged by the KFA for facilitating film and art projects in North Korea frequently range well above 50,000 euros (a little more than $60,000) – an amount other sources in the North Korea travel industry said leaves the KFA with a profit margin well beyond what is warranted.
Founded in 2000, the KFA and its leader, Alejandro Cao de Benos, have created a niche in facilitating foreign cultural and business endeavors in North Korea, as well as tourist visits. According to its website, the KFA today boasts “official delegates” in 40 countries, and Cao de Benos, a citizen of Spain who claims to hold honorary North Korean citizenship, has been portrayed by several Western media outlets as one of the very few Westerners with real access to the country.
But sources indicate that the KFA not only consistently fails to provide the access promised, but may also be making such promises without the knowledge of North Korean authorities. Several sources, including one former KFA member, also dispute Cao de Benos’s alleged honorary citizenship and special delegate status, presenting him as untrustworthy, ill-tempered and as exploiting the closed and secretive nature of North Korea to overcharge those seeking access.
PERSONAL BANK ACCOUNT
David Kinsella, a Norway-based Irish filmmaker, made two trips to North Korea organized by the KFA, for two weeks first in August 2011 and then the following year, as part of a film project intended for release in 2015.
“If you’ve got lots of money and lots of time, you can do it. I spent two years to get in, then one year filming,” Kinsella told NK News, declining to comment on the specific price he paid for his trip.
But information obtained via a KFA source, however, shows that while Kinsella paid a total of 7,500 euros for the first trip, he allegedly paid 40,000 euros up front to Cao de Benos for the second trip, during which the brunt of the filming took place.
Kinsella said that “everyone has to pay lots of money to film there. You have to play by their rules if you want to do something like that.” And though film production in North Korea is normally relatively costly, sources with experience setting up similar visits said sums similar to what the KFA charged Kinsella and others are unwarranted.
Sources with experience setting up similar visits said sums similar to what the KFA charged Kinsella and others are unwarranted
Another film director, who has visited North Korea a number of times over the last four years, said their first project in North Korea, organized by the KFA, turned out “extremely” costly compared to trips undertaken since – all of which have been organized in direct cooperation with contacts in North Korea’s Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (CCRFC).
For the first (KFA-organized) project, which involved a two-week visit, the director paid Cao de Benos a total of 14,000 euros. Of this amount, 12,000 ostensibly covered expenses directly related to the project itself, with the remaining 2,000 added to cover lodging and food, airfare between Beijing and Pyongyang and that of one KFA member accompanying the trip.
“It certainly seemed like a steep price even by European standards, but as Cao de Benos promised to facilitate all practicalities and authorizations needed, I figured it would be worth it,” said the director, who requested anonymity due to fear of imperilling ongoing projects inside the DPRK.
Notably, the fees were paid directly to Cao de Benos’s personal bank account registered in Spain, as shown by receipts and invoices seen by NK News.
And in addition to being promised exclusive access, the director was explicitly authorized to conduct exclusive and personal interviews with a broad selection of “ordinary” North Koreans. But this never materialized, the director said, except in the form of ad-hoc, improvised sessions that North Korean authorities had not authorized and were unaware of.
This contrasts starkly with the director’s more recent experiences in North Korea. Despite “some very energetic” preventative attempts by Cao de Benos, the director was able to build relationships with individuals in the CCRFC that would enable access to North Korea outside of the KFA.
“It was only when Cao de Benos had to leave DPRK for some days to pick up some other visitors and I was left alone with my minders in the CCRFC that I finally made some progress in at least establishing a dialogue about possibly carrying out future art collaborations,” the director said. “My subsequent partnership with the CCRFC has developed in spite of Cao de Benos’s repeated attempts to sabotage it, which again shows how little real influence he really has.”
Since then, the director has brought foreign camera crews into the country on several occasions, without paying additional fees. And after ending cooperation with the KFA, the director learned that the interviews and filming promised by Cao de Benos had never actually been authorized by the relevant North Korean authorities.
70,000 FOR A WEEK
Another filmmaker, who approached Cao de Benos in 2010 for a quote on shooting a documentary about North Korean cinema, was given a price of 70,000 euros for five-to-10 days of filming.
The filmmaker, who also wished to talk on condition of anonymity, was “almost desperate enough to pay him,” but caught word of a tourist company who also had experience in organizing film projects in North Korea. Cooperating with that company, the filmmaker undertook two visits to North Korea – one lasting five days and the other two weeks – which involved filming in and around Pyongyang, as well as at the DMZ.
The filmmaker would not go on-record with the exact price paid, but said it was “considerably lower” than the price quoted by Cao de Benos, even though it included two trips and longer periods of filming.
Several of the companies who organize tourist visits to North Korea also act as go-betweens for artists and the North Korean government in setting up projects in the country. Prices vary according to the wishes and needs of the clients, but representatives from such tour companies, as well as people who have made use of them, said they are nowhere near the sums charged by the KFA.
Another filmmaker, who approached Cao de Benos in 2010 for a quote on shooting a documentary about North Korean cinema, was given a price of 70,000 euros for five-to-10 days of filming
Most of the sources interviewed, including tour company representatives, requested anonymity in commenting on the issue, citing concerns about repercussions from Cao de Benos, or not wanting to complicate further dealings with North Korean authorities.
“Many people working in North Korea will be hesitant to put their names to anything involving Cao de Benos due to his reputation for reporting what he sees as anything faintly anti-DPRK,” one tour agency representative said.
While this doesn’t necessarily translate into suspension of projects, the representative explained, it is still something most people want to avoid, “as working in North Korea can be complicated enough already.”
In corroborating anonymous allegations, NK News posed as a Swedish filmmaker looking to undertake one week of shooting for a 3D film project, involving a total entourage of three people and use of own equipment.
The price quoted by the KFA’s “Intel Org Sec,” Mana Sapmak, who handled the correspondence, was 46,000 euros, distributed across:
- Filmmaking permissions, identification bracelets and a DPRK special visa for three people (24,900 euros)
- Return airfare Beijing-Pyongyang-Beijing (1,500 euro)
- Hotel accomodations for seven nights and three meals per day (8,600 euro)
- Private driver and vehicle (3,800 euro)
- Entrance to ”palaces, museums, monuments, etc.” (2,900 euro)
- Two guides/translators (4,300 euro)
The transaction of 46,000 euros was to be made by international transfer to a KFA bank account in China, managed by their Beijing agent.
“You cannot send it directly to the DPRK due to sanctions,” Sapmak wrote in the correspondence, a departure from the previous practice – reported by sources – of transferring payments to Cao de Benos’s personal Spanish bank account.
“This price is clearly ludicrous. It’s comically high, to be honest, even for a filming trip,”
Having received details of the deal, NK News sought responses from travel industry sources with experience in organizing similar projects directly with North Korean authorities.
“This price is clearly ludicrous. It’s comically high, to be honest, even for a filming trip,” said a representative of one company that frequently helps artists set up similar endeavors, also requesting anonymity for fear of reprisals from the KFA.
While working out price details based on such a list can be complicated, the source said, the actual cost would more than likely be “something under 20,000 euros.” And though prices will vary according to the details of the itinerary, the representative said that their own company would likely end up quoting around 14,000 euros for a similar deal.
Regarding the specifics of the tour, alleged to include “a factory, hospital, supermarket or citizen’s house where tourists don’t go,” the tour company source said that “it’s generally pretty normal tourist stuff” and that “the attractions offered are standard, to be honest.”
Other budget items were a source of confusion, the source added: “What the entrance to museums is I don’t know, there is a fee but it is a pittance in most cases. (The KFA rate) is crazy. The same can be said about the prices for the translators and hotels too. Usually a room at the Yanggakdo (no meals included) will run about 70 euros per night, so you can see the difference there.”
Of Sapmak’s quote, the film director helped by the KFA in organizing a first project but who since cooperates directly with the CCRFC, said the sum of 46,000 euros resembled “an arrangement that could be made for less than a 10th of the price with serious tour operators like Koryo Tours or Young Pioneer Tours.“
But when confronted with investigation findings, Cao de Benos declined to comment on the majority of the claims presented by sources, due to having “many important interviews to attend with serious TV’s (sic) and newspapers.
“I do not work in the travel scene, but for the (North Korean) Committee for Cultural Relations,” Cao de Benos said.
He also countered allegations about his business practices by claiming that NK News once offered him a job and “made money by selling poker cards with my picture.”
NK News has never offered Cao de Benos employment, but did sell North Korea themed playing cards in 2012.
‘EXCLUSIVE,’ AGGRESSIVE ACCESS
According to the KFA’s website, “A visitor joining the KFA delegation is not treated as a tourist but as a friend of the DPRK, having access to places, information, insights and state events not allowed for regular visitors.”
In this light, one former KFA member – who has now distanced himself from the organization – said that the higher fees are generally justified by promising more exclusive access than other tour agencies. But, the source pointed out, those exclusives are rarely delivered.
The former member holds up an example from 2012 as particularly “embarrassing,” where, during a tourist visit, one of the main attractions was the promise of exclusive seats onlooking a military parade celebrating the 100-year anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth. But the KFA didn’t get any of these seats, the source said, “while Koryo Tours and several other regular tour operators got seats without any problems.
“Many of those traveling with the KFA at the time reacted to this, and it was embarassing to us KFA members,” the former member added.
Monique Macias,who traveled to North Korea with a KFA-organized tourist group in 2004, said for her, access problems began fairly early in her correspondence with Cao de Benos.
Macias, who grew up in North Korea, but does not hold North Korean citizenship, said she specifically told Cao de Benos she wanted to visit friends and not be part of the KFA tourist group. “I only wanted a visa from him and then (I’d) be independent from his group,” she wrote to NK News in an email, saying that Cao de Benos had told her this would be fine.
“But when we arrived, he told me I had to move with the group,” she said. Only after three days of negotiating was she able to leave the group and pursue her own activities.
As Macias is the daughter of Francisco Macías Nguema, former president of Equatorial Guinea and North Korean founding President Kim Il Sung’s close friend, she explicitly asked Cao de Benos not to let other group members in on her history of growing up in North Korea, to avoid unwanted attention.
“But to my surprise and disappointment, he announced to the people about my background. He took advantage of me. From that moment, all journalists on that trip were asking me questions,” she said.
Regarding Macias’s experience, Cao de Benos declined to provide comment, beyond saying that “even Monique Macias had to beg me to visit the country. When I prepared her visa, my comrades told me that she will not have any special treatment because she is considered a traitor. She is breathing thanks to the generosity and hospitality of our President Kim Il Sung.”
And Morten Traavik, a Norwegian artist who traveled to Pyongyang on one of the KFA’s “Friendship Tours” in 2008, said he was openly lambasted and threatened by Cao de Benos in front of a group for having attended “without proper authorization” a Friday expat’s pub night organized by resident foreigners inside Pyongyang’s diplomatic compound. The next day, Cao de Benos was “furious,” Traavik said, and threatened him with “unspecified consequences,” as well as restrictions imposed on the rest of his stay.
“He said that aid workers and diplomats were spies and that he couldn’t be sure anymore whether I was one or not,” Traavik said.
In exchange for not making good on his threats, Traavik said, Cao de Benos demanded he write a full report, identifying everyone he had spoken with and the details of the conversations.
SPECIAL DELEGATE ‘STATUS’
Cao de Benos’s alleged relationship with his North Korean contacts and claimed honorary citizenship have enabled a portrayal of him by several media outlets as an eccentric, but significant, figure in North Korea’s relations with the world. In line with this, sources interviewed by NK News said that Cao de Benos normally presents himself with official letterheads, business cards and signatures stating that he is a “special delegate to the CCRFC.”
But he has also been cast as ill-tempered and vindictive, such as in the 2006 Dutch documentary Friends of Kim, which showed Cao de Benos confiscating recordings and damaging the equipment of former ABC News reporter Andrew Morse.
Viewed by many as a hard-liner, apologist and one with heavily biased views of the North Korean regime, Cao de Benos has engendered disenchantment even within his own organization, according to former members.
The alleged honorary citizenship, even if it exists, is more a ceremonial title than a technical citizenship entailing the holding of a passport, and when traveling to North Korea, Cao de Benos always uses his Spanish passport.
One of them, the KFA member quoted earlier, previously accompanied Cao de Benos on several group and art project and said the alleged honorary citizenship, even if it exists, is more a ceremonial title than a technical citizenship entailing the holding of a passport.
When traveling to North Korea, Cao de Benos always uses his Spanish passport, the source said. “He had to apply for tourist visas like everyone else”. And regarding the ‘special delegate’ status, the source said that Cao de Benos has been asked by the CCRFC to remove the inscription from his business cards, due to the title being fictitious.
Cao de Benos declined to comment on his honorary citizenship, but said regarding the special delegate status that, “It will be interesting to see how you explain that, if I cannot hold my position as special delegate, I organized and prepared the recent visas, documentaries and interviews for RT (Journalist: Ms. Angela Gallardo) or Al-Jazeera (Journalist: Ms. Teresa Bo).”
NK News was unsuccessful in obtaining comment from Teresa Bo, but RT’s Angela Gallardo, who was recently assisted by the KFA in filming a documentary on North Korea, wrote in an email response to questions that she had contacted Cao de Benos because he seemed the best way of getting them into North Korea.
But while Gallardo declined to disclose information about the price paid for the services provided by the KFA, she said of allegations about the organization not making good on promises of access: “You are right.”
NORTH KOREANS ‘UNAWARE’
The former KFA member told NK News they were “almost certain that the North Koreans are unaware of the extent to which Alejandro portrays the KFA as an extended arm of the North Korean state.” Furthermore, Cao de Benos keeps KFA finances “very close to his chest,” leaving the impression “that the organization’s economy and his own are one and the same.”
“During the time I was working with the KFA,” the source said, “nobody saw a single balance sheet or financial account for the organization, and Alejandro never put forward anything of the sort for the rest of the organization’s leadership.”
Notably, the former member said that among those working for the organization, Cao de Benos is the only one who receives a salary.
Theories regarding why the North Koreans tolerate his actions include them not being fully aware of it, or the possibility that Cao de Benos shares the marked-up charges with North Korean officials under the table. While Cao de Benos declined to comment on such allegations, the source he previously worked with said he often claimed to take no commission from his work, donating proceeds to the North Korean government.
(Cao de Benos) has previously said he takes no commission from his work, but donates proceeds to the North Korean government
Yet the film director who cooperated with the KFA for the first North Korea project said that contacts in the CCRFC had, up until recently, been unaware of the commissions charged by Cao de Benos, and had seen nothing of them. Allegations about where profits go have not been possible to corroborate, and NK News has not been successful in getting comment from relevant North Korean authorities on the matter. Cao de Benos also declined to provide comment on the issue.
The director speculated that should North Koreans be aware of the situation, abruptly cutting Cao de Benos off would represent an implicit acknowledgement of poor judgement over the years in which they have cooperated with him.
“After all, he still generates some modest revenue for the DPRK, like any other tour operator, and the Koreans fear it would make them look silly if they let him loose now,” the director said.
Another visitor to the DPRK who works frequently with authorities there said the situation speaks to “the fractured and competitive nature of North Korea’s bureaucracy.”
“(Cao de Benos) clearly has enough allies that his position is okay. And whether he has them through monetary incentives or just because of his earnest propagandizing, or both, clearly somebody is on his side,” the visitor said, who also requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. “Or, nobody wants to confront him because it’s just not worth the trouble.”
On the subject of how many people end up paying significantly inflated fees for their undertakings in North Korea, the visitor said that things like honorary citizenship, special delegate status and important connections – whether legitimate or not – enable Cao de Benos to present himself to potential clients as someone who can provide exclusive access.
“His power comes through maintaining the illusion that only he can provide access to these people, who haven’t figured out how to independently connect with the CCRFC,” the visitor said.
Traavik, who has organized an ongoing series of collaborative projects with North Korean cultural authorities since 2012, said that not everyone is “equipped to deal with the pressure” that arises from dealing with cooperative endeavors between North Korea and foreign professionals, “even with the best of intentions initially.”
He also said that there is a “constant temptation to outwardly exaggerate one’s own importance in North Korean society, which is very easy because there are so few people in the know.”
“Any tour operator lives off commissions, so I don’t think anyone, including the North Koreans, have a problem with that in itself,” Traavik continued. “However, and especially for such a seemingly dedicated follower of (North Korea’s philosophy of) Juche, it seems Cao de Benos has developed quite a taste for capitalism over the years.”
Main picture: NK News edit
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