On November 4 last year, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel landed at Pyongyang’s Sunan Airport for a summit with Kim Jong Un — the first between the two countries in over three decades.
Accompanying the DPRK leader at the airport was the usual gaggle of journalists from North Korea’s state media, all jostling for the best shots of their Marshal and his second meeting with Díaz-Canel.
But standing at the back, filming it all on his smartphone, was 62-year-old Benito Joaquín Milanés — who since April that year has worked as Cuba’s state news agency Prensa Latina’s first full-time “special envoy” in Pyongyang.
Since then, he’s been filing regular stories from the North Korean capital, sometimes several times a day, enjoying a degree of access not typically afforded to members of the international press.
Speaking to NK News over email this week, he admits that foreign reporters — even from nations with long-held ties to North Korea like Cuba — are a rarity in Pyongyang.
“You can count them on one hand, we’re only 5!” he says, adding that this includes correspondents from Russia’s TASS News Agency, as well as China’s People’s Daily, CCTV, and Xinhua.
Other freelancers come and go, he adds, as do major international press junkets for high-profile events.
“I keep professional working relations with all of them because we all get along.”
Of course, other outlets operate bureaus in North Korea: among them are the U.S.’s Associated Press, Agence-France Presse, and Japan’s Kyodo News Agency, but none are able to have foreign staff work full-time in the DPRK.
Much of the restrictions have to do with North Korea’s largely fraught relations with the outside world — and Milanés’s more relaxed posting likely stems from Pyongyang’s long-standing ideological and diplomatic ties with Cuba.
“Let’s not forget that Cuba and North Korea have an enemy in common: The United States of America,” Milanés — known as Beny to his friends — says.
“The latter country keeps them under an economic and financial blockade, with the aim of leaving their people powerless.”
“Whether we like it or not, Korea has strict rules… they’re very mathematical in a sense.”
Milanés’s political leanings are clear from how he discusses his homeland — and his views on North Korea. This shouldn’t come as a major surprise, of course: as the primary state news agency in a country with little press freedom, Prensa Latina and its employees are expected to promote the line of Cuba’s ruling Communist Party.
Photos on his private Facebook account, too, show that North Korean authorities have awarded him with the ubiquitous Kim Il Sung-Kim Jong Il badge — a rare prize for a foreigner typically given as a reward for political loyalty.
Right off the bat, he freely admits that he doesn’t see himself as working for an impartial news agency.
“I want to make clear that I’m not representing an impartial agency here nor anywhere else,” he says. “Prensa Latina is an agency biased towards the truth.”
Despite this, he explains, there are of course restrictions on what he can and can’t do while in North Korea.
“Foreigners can’t use public transportation in North Korea (for example buses, trollies, subway, taxis),” he says. “We can only use the train or airplane to enter or leave the country and we can only walk places in town.”
“Let’s not forget that Cuba and North Korea have an enemy in common: The United States of America”
That said, he says these restrictions are par for the course anywhere journalists operate.
“In every country, there are governmental and chancery regulations that rule the accreditation and work of foreign press,” he argues. “This is supervised by the corresponding entities within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of National Security. To ensure otherwise would just be childish.”
“In this sense, whether we like it or not, Korea has strict rules… they’re very mathematical in a sense.”
Milanés’s documents much of his work — and daily life — on his Youtube channel
Like all foreign journalists in Pyongyang, Milanés tells NK News he works alongside local staff — he employs a local translator, as well as a member of the International Affairs department of the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
Every full-time reporter in the DPRK capital, he adds, “works under the supervision” of their local counterparts.
“None of them work as editors or censors, though; at least not with me,” he insists. “I wouldn’t allow it in the first place.”
“If that happened, I’d already be at home in Havana… [Prensa Latina] wouldn’t have allowed it, for starters,” he continues. “Let’s not forget that the founders of Prensa Latina were Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara – two rebels with a cause.”
The unique working environment notwithstanding, Milanés tells NK News that he enjoys life in Pyongyang, and appreciates “how kind and respectful people are.”
“Prensa Latina is all about discovering the real nuances of Korea”
“I walk on the streets at any time of the day without having to worry about certain things people in other cities (for example, my hometown Manzanillo and Havana) do worry about,” he says.
“Here, I keep an open mind,” he adds. “The food here is delicious and, overall, Korean people are very kind and willing to help.”
Readers expect this open mindedness from their man in Pyongyang, he says, and are interested in learning “about what daily life is like for Koreans.”
“Prensa Latina is all about discovering the real nuances of Korea, in order to show the world that there’s still genuine culture in here and that not all is contaminated by an Occidental luxury lifestyle.”
It’s not clear how much of the real nuance of North Korea Milanés is able to see in his day to day work: he tells NK News his movement is limited by not owning a car — and that concerns over fuel make his local partner reluctant to travel too frequently.
“Now, there are all kinds of markets”
That said, he says he’s visited the city of Sinuiju and other places along the border with China, as well as Panmunjom — and says that life on the ground is changing in the country.
“As of now, there are all kinds of markets,” he says. “You can find a wide variety of things in them, despite the limitations this country may have. However, they’re quite pricey for foreigners.”
Milanés’s presence in Pyongyang comes amid increasingly close relations between Havana and Pyongyang — not just limited to last year’s summit between the two countries’ leaders — and he says he thinks his country “could have a stronger presence in the DPRK and vice versa.”
“There are many local job offers in Korea that would be perfect in Cuba, as well as local job offers in Cuba that’d be perfect in Korea,” he explains. “They both have similar needs.”
Part of these growing ties, then, will be the opening up of an official Prensa Latina bureau in Pyongyang, though it’s not clear when exactly that might happen.
“As of now, it’s working in pursuit of the 60th anniversary of our agency which… will take place on June 16,” he says.
“Opening up an office is nothing but a technicality. It’s no secret to anyone that, since the year 2018, North Korean authorities vouch for Prensa Latina.”
In the meantime, Milanés tells NK News he hopes to set up an official foreign press club in Pyongyang for himself and his colleagues.
“We’ll be soon forming the Pyongyang Foreign Journalist Association (PFJA), so stay tuned for that.”
Edited by Colin Zwirko
Featured image: Benito Joaquín Milanés