Update at 1745 KST: The KFA UK has responded to this article in a post on its Facebook page, which can be read here.
After almost eight years in the Korean Friendship Association UK (KFA UK), it was an official trip to North Korea that resulted in Alex Meads being slowly, but decisively, purged by his former comrades.
“I started asking questions,” he tells NK News. “We went to various museums, various factories, and in these museums, you would find objects owned by or just touched by Kim Jong Un or the other leaders… these would be pencils, chairs, just random objects.”
Baffled, he shared his thoughts with fellow KFA UK members: “this to me seems absolutely obsessional. This isn’t natural. I find this very strange, very weird.”
“They started to become quite hostile. Whenever I’d ask a difficult question, they wouldn’t answer it. They’d just accuse me of my mind being perverted by a bourgeois education.”
Eight months on, Alex is now officially “excommunicated” from the organization, one of the world’s most high-profile pro-Pyongyang “friendship” organizations — though the reasons for his expulsion remain somewhat unclear.
“I was shunned,” he says. “Then I received an email from Dermot saying I’ve been expelled. I’m absolutely shocked by it, and by how quickly it happened as well.”
“Dermot” refers to Dermot Hudson, a former British civil servant and now a close-to-full-time pro-DPRK activist, who has long served as the KFA UK’s very own Supreme Leader.
Hudson — or “Dr. Dermot,” as he reportedly likes to be referred to by his cadres — has been visiting North Korea for decades, and has developed a reputation in the pro-DPRK community as a well-traveled ideologue and an asset to the cause.
“I started asking questions”
The North Korean government, too, has recognized his unique contribution to the movement.
His name has appeared dozens of times in state media, and he was even earlier in the year hailed in a special video segment as a steadfast friend of North Korea and a committed activist back home.
But Alex paints a different picture: one of an increasingly paranoid, cult-like organization, dominated by a leadership that cannot be questioned.
“What I really want is other people to be aware of what this group is really like because they sell themselves as just a friendship body – cultural exchanges, music, food, et cetera,” he says. “And they are not.”
Dermot Hudson did not respond to any of Alex’s allegations against him, instead telling NK News in an email that he would be “taking legal advice with a view to suing both you and Mr. Meads.” Just hours after being contacted by NK News, he warned followers on Twitter that “fascists are planning an anti KFA article.”
“Confessions of a foreigner” — a North Korean state TV segment hailing Dermot Hudson’s contributions to the cause
JOINING THE KFA
Alex, now 22, joined the KFA at a very young age. He was 14 years old, and, like many at that age, had a growing interest in politics.
Coming across an advert for a group called “Friends of Korea” in a communist newspaper, he decided to attend a meeting — accompanied by his mum, of course.
“She was very impressed by Dermot,” Alex says. “He was a very lovely man, came across having a great interest in me, wanting to know about me, encouraging me to go to his meetings.”
After that, Alex was hooked: “I started going to more and more meetings. And he would encourage me to come back, he would pay my rail fares, he would pay for my food.”
“It’s totally inappropriate to have children joining an organization like that”
But the pressure to get more deeply involved in the movement came quickly, with Alex being encouraged to take a more keen interest in the ideological pillars of the North Korean state: the Juche idea and the politics of Songun.
“They slowly would increase the pressure like that,” he says. “Everybody else in the group came across as very nice, very friendly towards me when I first joined. It’s like a family environment.”
The leadership changed, however, going from warm and encouraging to suffocating and domineering.
“He’s become very controlling. He wants to know where I was going on holiday, what I was doing,” Alex explains. “It’s developed into a cult.”
Alex now says he believes he was being, as he describes it, “groomed” — encouraged to go deeper and deeper into an organization that would consume his life and eventually excommunicate him when his thinking changed.
“I feel like I was very young, and it’s totally inappropriate to have children joining an organization like that.”
After several years of service, Dermot rewarded Alex’s loyalty with a promotion: in January 2017, he was promoted to Commissar.
With the new title came new responsibilities, and further hints at the increasing paranoia that had begun to consume the KFA UK’s leadership.
The purpose of his new job as commissar, Alex says, was “basically to research anyone who Dermot felt was a threat to him.”
Dermot had become more and more afraid about the infiltration of the KFA, by the British security services or far-right groups, Alex says.
“He thought that the government would keep trying to do that, keep trying to infiltrate these fascists into the organization.”
“He asked me to do research into you, into other journalists, outsiders who contacted us for interviews”
It was Alex’s job to help prevent this, with Dermot charging him with investigating the backgrounds of new members and ensuring they were true believers.
“He would give me a list of people, and I would do electoral roll checks, sometimes I’d have to even ring their workplace pretending to be someone else, find out everything about them before Dermot lets them in,” he says.
“He just became totally obsessed and paranoid.”
This paranoia also extended to journalists and other outsiders: Alex says he was asked to compile files on a number of people that Dermot felt was a threat to him.
That included, he says, your humble NK News correspondent.
“Yeah, he asked me to do research into you,” Alex admits. “I’m sorry I have had to say that, but yeah, he asked me to do research into you, into other journalists, outsiders who contacted us for interviews. It was basically anyone.”
Dermot saw the hand of U.S. intelligence in many of those with whom he had come into contact, Alex says: everyone from NK News (“he thinks that you are basically a freelance contractor for the CIA”) to prominent foreign tour guides were privately accused of CIA links.
Fear of how others might perceive members of the KFA, Alex says, even extended to concerns over how some chose to dress — and hints at a social conservatism influenced by his North Korean counterparts.
He says, for example, that he was told not to wear jeans: “[Dermot] told me on multiple occasions that jeans were worn in the Eastern Bloc in the late 80s as a sign of rebellion.”
“Dermot himself, is very against the whole LGBT issue”
One male member, Alex says, was subject to private criticism among the top of the group due to their decision to wear women’s clothing.
“He would wear a skirt, and Dermot didn’t like that,” he says. “He thought that was totally inappropriate. He said to Shawn [his deputy], ‘can you imagine if the embassy sees it?’”
These comments hinted at other more regressive attitudes, Alex explains — attitudes that he says are a cause of disagreement within the KFA.
“Dermot himself, is very against the whole LGBT issue,” he says. “He’s not pro-homosexual at all. And then you’ve got members who are. The only point of differentiation is on the issue of LGBT.”
“But it was never really spoken about in the KFA because in the DPRK itself it’s not spoken about.”
FUNDING THE REVOLUTION
During a visit to Pyongyang in September last year, NK News spoke to a number of KFA members in town to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding. Many said, surprisingly, that the North Korean government had helped fund their visit.
But what about the KFA UK? No, says Alex. “Dermot basically self-funded the KFA completely.”
The exception to this rule, surprisingly, came from the DPRK embassy in London and a now well-known, now defected, diplomat.
“I was told by Dermot, that under Thae Yong-ho, that the embassy would contribute very small amounts of money to certain events,” Alex says –corroborating claims made in Thae’s 2018 memoir “Cypher of the Third-Floor Secretariat.”
Alex now expresses a desire to send regards to defector diplomat Thae Yong-ho: who he said was “far more open and candid” than other DPRK officials.
Thae, for his part, told NK News this week that he always felt “very sorry” for Alex.
“I had to brainwash him to increase the number of Juche followers in UK,” he says.
Despite this, Alex says, support was always limited.
“We don’t receive and we never did receive regular financial payments from the DPRK.”
“Neither do we receive any funds from KFA International. Alejandro Cao de Benós doesn’t send any money at all,” he adds — a reference to the KFA UK’s parent organization and its all-powerful leader.
Cao de Benós is known to not be short of cash: hailing from a well-known aristocratic family, he has previously been revealed to exaggerate his stature in-country to charge extortionate fees for access to the DPRK.
“He is also the only member of the KFA to receive a salary, and he is very much in control,” Alex says. “He has a very comfortable life.”
“Under Thae Yong-ho, that the embassy would contribute very small amounts of money to certain events”
Despite this, Alex explains, the KFA UK was forced to largely fend for itself, relying on small donations and resulting in some of its top members working minimum-wage, part-time odd jobs to make ends meet.
“Towards the end, [Dermot] was pressuring me for donations for the KFA, and he would hint that I have to give money, but it’s money I don’t have at my age,” he says. “I can’t afford to be giving large sums to the KFA.”
Cao de Benós did not respond to requests for comment from NK News.
But with a core membership of only 12, the KFA UK also needed all the help they could get in raising money and offering assistance to comrades overseas.
“As time went on – this was sort of in the last two years – he started to give me admin jobs to do,” Alex says. “He became quite distressed if I said no to these assignments.”
“He would put me in charge of booking venues, booking restaurants, writing articles, proofreading his articles, non-KFA work,” he continues.
This included, unusually, “trying to sort out postgraduate qualifications for a Bangladeshi communist’s daughter.”
“It was all unpaid as well, and Dermot made it very clear that I had to do this,” he continues, suggesting the KFA UK may have violated English labor laws on unpaid volunteer work.
“I couldn’t say no to him, basically. Because I got so deep into the KFA. On the occasions that I said no, they would sort of shun me. They wouldn’t speak to me before a meeting.”
LEAVING THE KFA
That shunning from a social circle he’d devoted his formative years to building was stepped-up after his fateful September trip to North Korea — his fourth to the country and his second in his official capacity as a KFA member.
“I started questioning before, and this was my last DPRK trip,” he says. “I guess when I was out there, I started to notice things.”
Alex says he conveyed these concerns to his comrades: “I said to them I didn’t feel comfortable in the DPRK, it’s a very tense and rigid society.”
“I had done a little bit of traveling, and I’ve never felt like that in any other country I have been to – that sense of tension, that sense of having to be aware of what I’m saying, how I’m acting, what I’m doing in public,” he explains, adding that he could not understand how an avowedly socialist country could have a hereditary leadership structure.
“He became very annoyed that I was asking questions – difficult questions that Dermot could not answer.”
Upon return from the socialist paradise, Alex says, it was only a few months until he was excluded from a group with which he now claims he “wasted the last eight years.”
“It’s been seven months of very strange relationships,” he explains. “It got to a point in the last two meetings, people just weren’t speaking to me.”
“And if I’d walk up and speak to them, they’d just turn their back on me and walk in the opposite direction… the last two/three events and meetings, they made it very clear that they didn’t want me there anymore.”
“I’ve been associated with this very dangerous organization”
He eventually just stopped going to meetings, before receiving notice that he’d been unceremoniously booted from the organization and stripped of his title as commissar.
“Dermot has, still to this day, not explained why he wanted to get rid of me,” Alex says. “Alejandro gave a vague explanation of ‘oh, you’ve been rude to other KFA members.'”
Now out of the organization, Alex explains that he is speaking out to prevent others from making the same mistakes he did — and warn them about getting deep into these kinds of groups.
“I put a lot of effort, increasing amount of time into the KFA, all for nothing,” he says. “And what it’s also done is that now I’ve been associated with this very dangerous organization.”
“I think it’s necessary to warn other people and to make people aware of what the KFA really is, and what’s really going on inside the organization.”
Beyond that, he’s got a little more traveling he’d like to do — while accepting his background may make this a little difficult. He’s never been to South Korea, for example.
“I have a feeling if I do [go], that won’t go down particularly well,” he says. “I really would love to go.”
Edited by Chad O’Carroll and Colin Zwirko
Featured image: Alexander Meads, modified by NK News