“The Most Impressive Private Intelligence Operation”: Review of “The Mole”
Directed by Mads Brügger. Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the United Kingdom: Piraya Film I, Wingman Media, BBC, NRK, DR and SVT, 2020. Web Episode Series, 123 min (UK).
What Is The Mole?
Many Western documentaries on North Korea follow a similar script: footage from one or more tourist visits to the country, supplemented by interviews done in South Korea, the USA and/or Europe.
The Mole is different. Filmed with open or concealed cameras, it shows first-hand how actual North Koreans and their business partners negotiate and conclude deals involving weapons, narcotics and illicit oil transfers. The hero is Ulrich Larsen, a Danish citizen who spent no less than ten years pretending to be sympathetic to the DPRK. The main villain is Alejandro Cao de Benós, president of the pro-North Korean Korea Friendship Association (KFA), who leaves no doubt about his willingness to engage in illegal transactions, and his deeply racist worldview. Mind you, this is a documentary, not fiction.
The level of detail provided is breathtaking. To quote Annie Machon, the former British MI5 agent who debriefed the main protagonists of the documentary, it is “probably the most impressive private intelligence operation I have ever heard of.” There are price lists of various types of weapons, detailed plans for underground production facilities hidden beneath a fake holiday resort and explanations of strategies to be used to evade international sanctions. All this is filmed consistently and with remarkably good quality.
Mads Brügger and His Protagonists
Mads Brügger is a Danish filmmaker, known for his previous documentary about North Korea filmed in the late 2000s entitled The Red Chapel, as well as Cold Case Hammarskjöld, a film released in 2019 regarding the death of United Nations General Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld. The Red Chapel stars Brügger alongside two Danish Korean comedians who travel to Pyongyang to perform. But it is perhaps his 2011 documentary entitled The Ambassador that is most like The Mole. Brügger stars as an entertaining if nihilistic, would-be blood diamond dealer in the Central African Republic, bribing his way through the government bureaucracy to expose an already basically open underbelly of corruption involving diplomatic passport brokerage and warlords-cum-national leaders.
But while The Mole has some passing similarities to The Ambassador, Brügger is not the lead star, as he was banned from North Korea after The Red Chapel. Instead, he is approached by Ulrich Larsen sometime soon following the release of The Red Chapel. Larsen is a former Danish chef with a chronic illness that prevents him from working and who subsists on disability benefits. He wants to expose the North Korean regime, and proceeds to become involved in the Danish North Korean Friendship Association. Larsen’s motives are briefly described at the beginning of the documentary as unmasking the evils of dictatorship, having been inspired by childhood friends from East Germany through whom he learned “about the horrors of a totalitarian regime.” But this is practically all we hear, though his motives, whatever they are, appear quite genuine throughout the rest of the documentary, and early on Brügger tells us that Larsen never paid him.
Becoming The Mole
The story unfolds relatively slowly. Larsen films some low-scale activities of the Danish friendship association ostensibly for social media, providing quite a depressing image. It takes two years for things to become more exciting. In 2012, Larsen travels to Pyongyang to be awarded a medal for his loyalty. There he meets Alejandro Cao de Benós, a Spanish citizen who is president of the KFA, an umbrella organization that claims to have dozens of branches and hundreds of thousands of members all over the world. Again, Brügger is not impressed and comments that “actually many members of the KFA are unemployed.” Nevertheless, Larsen and Cao de Benós stay in touch, and their cooperation unexpectedly lifts the story up to the next level.
Larsen acquires the trust of Cao de Benós and two years later becomes the KFA representative for all of Scandinavia. In the beginning, his main task is to counter negative Western media reporting about North Korea. But Cao de Benós is desperate to prove his own usefulness to Pyongyang, and in an email urges Larsen to find investors for “3 interesting investment projects in DPRK. If you have business-men [sic] friends with capital, starting from 50,000 euro up to 1 million EUR, we can do something.”
This is when Brügger hires Jim Mehdi Latrache-Qvortrup to play the part of “Mr. James,” a fake investor. The former member of the French Foreign Legion and “Jetsetter Cocaine pusher” in Copenhagen is now, after eight years in jail, as Brügger puts it, a “legitimate businessman” and “tailor-made for extreme role-playing.”
The first meeting between Larsen, Mr. James and Cao de Benós takes place in 2016 in Oslo. Everything is recorded with hidden cameras. In what looks like a competition in posturing, Mr. James acts as a Scandinavian oil billionaire, while Cao de Benós introduces himself as “special lead of the government of the DPRK in charge of international relations.”
Mr. James lays out the bait: “I work for an investment family. Until now, our investments have been in oil, gas, weapons, metal, pharmaceuticals, but our minimum investment is 50 million Euros.” After ensuring that he heard correctly—“five zero?” —Cao de Benós needs a drink of water before proceeding.
He claims to have “contacts up to Marshal Kim Jong Un,” and proceeds to explain how the North Koreans circumvent sanctions through companies in China, Southeast Asia, Malaysia and other countries: “so they follow sanctions in the UN, in front of the TV, but in reality, they just look the other way.” Obviously eager to finally broker a significant investment deal on behalf of Pyongyang, Cao de Benós puts everything on the table: “We do not have to follow any rules…we can do things that no other country can do…We are developing things in the pharmaceutical industry which are forbidden in any other country in the world.” He proudly mentions a Canadian company that has asked him to produce “Methamphetamine for the drug market,” but is quick to stress that weapons are the “main business.”
At a later date, perhaps after receiving instructions, Cao de Benós explains that while “Our [the North Korean] army, they are used to sell finished technology to governments,” the North Koreans are reluctant to sell weapons directly to a private person. But there is a solution: they are willing to provide technology and experts, and build production facilities in third countries for all kinds of goods including “submarines, tanks, and missiles.”
The Arms Deal
A meeting is arranged in Pyongyang for January 2017. After two days of sightseeing, Larsen and Mr. James are finally taken to the suburbs of Pyongyang. They arrive in an unspectacular industrial area and are led down to a small meeting room in the basement. There, Mr. James—who meanwhile is wearing a badge with the images of the two North Korean leaders, a rare honor bestowed only on selected foreigners—meets Kim Ryong Chol, the president of Narae Trading Corporation, an arms factory. He is handed a catalog, in English, of weapons systems including 240-mm rocket launchers, SS-N5 sea-to-sea and ground-to sea missile systems and Scud-E missiles with a range of 1,350 km. Mr. James and Kim then sign a contract on “Business Cooperation and Investment.” The contract follows more or less what had been discussed with Cao de Benós the year before: Narae will build a factory “in a 3rd country” for “manufacturing of the military equipment and medicines” and provide technical staff. All the time, Larsen is filming—openly.
The next step is finding a country to host the factory. Namibia is briefly considered, but finally, Uganda is chosen. Before traveling, Larsen secretly records a briefing by Cao de Benós in Tarragona during which the KFA president turns out to be a despicable racist:
The negro has that thing. In the moment you don’t look at them, they will steal everything from you, even a drop of water. And they need always to have a person on top of them, telling them what to do. If not, they just sleep or steal. Sleep or steal. If the white master is not there, they will feel like animals, and destroy everything.
Larsen and Mr. James travel to Kampala to meet a group of North Koreans including “Mr. Danny,” who is introduced as an international arms dealer. The plan is to buy an island in Lake Victoria, get rid of the unsuspecting locals with the help of Ugandan real estate brokers and their political contacts and build an underground facility and an airstrip. Cover is to be provided by a holiday resort. As “Danny” explains: “You bring your own aircraft to our country [North Korea] under the name of humanitarian aid, you can bring some clothing, some food. Then we can load all the contracted items. Then you pay money to us, and then you fly back.”
But the story, as bizarre as it is, is not over yet. In their hotel in Kampala, and again on film, the North Koreans ask Mr. James whether he can bring “items” to the Middle East, especially Syria, like “projectiles, bombs.” A meeting to discuss the details is set up in Beijing. It is 2017, sanctions are getting tighter and threats are exchanged between North Korea and the USA.
Against the advice of experts, who warn that his fake identity might easily be uncovered by Chinese intelligence, Mr. James travels to Beijing and meets the North Koreans, one of whom is allegedly “the main guy in the arms industry.” The Uganda project is discussed, and this is also the only time when we hear the North Koreans expressing some skepticism about the credibility of Mr. James.
Back in Barcelona, Cao de Benós, most likely again after consultation with the North Korean side, suggests a triangular deal involving a Mr. Hisham Al Dasouqi, a Jordanian oil trader. The plan: Mr. James will pay Mr. Dasouqi, who ships oil to North Korea, which in turn pays Mr. James “in arms parts and pharmaceuticals [sent] to the island in Uganda.”
In 2018, a Petroleum Products Supply Agreement worth over $3.2 million USD is signed in Amman, Jordan between “Aktham Trading Establishment” and the “Government of the DPR of Korea, Alejandro Cao de Benós, Special Delegate.” As Mr. Dasouqi explains in his office, again on hidden camera:
Each time I export to [North] Korea, when I come back I change the name of the ship. Because after you go there once, you get blacklisted. An important thing to do, when you import or export, don’t sail your ship directly. There must be a point to stop and change documents, and then go.
A few more meetings follow, including one in Phnom Penh in 2019, when Mr. James is given another catalog of advanced, laser-guided weapons. In the end, Larsen and Brügger tell Cao de Benós via video call that he had been filmed over all the years. In shock, Cao de Benós ends the call.
A documentary that makes such strong claims and accusations will inevitably be subject to scrutiny. The main question: is it all real? We cannot answer this conclusively; a lot seems to be beyond doubt, although there are a few points that raise eyebrows.
Take, for example, the motivation of Ulrich Larsen. The documentary is not very convincing on this point. “Befriending kids from East Germany whom he met at his 14th birthday party in September 1990 and learning about the horrors of a Communist dictatorship” is provided as the sole reason for The Mole to embark on this long, dangerous and challenging journey. But why this one meeting a year after the peaceful revolution in East Germany and two weeks before formal German unification provided such a strong motivation for this risky and stressful endeavor remains unclear.
A particularly strange episode is when Mr. James is being asked by an intelligence officer during the business meeting in Pyongyang in January 2017 about the name of his company. Mr. James claims he invented the company name “Taga Group” only in that very moment. Can it be that they went into such a dangerous environment so badly prepared? The Danish public broadcaster DR says:
…prior to the trips to both North Korea and Beijing there have been very in-depth briefings where risks were reversed and scenarios for the trips were reviewed. In addition, the entire team has been through conversations and workshops with experienced advisers and intelligence personnel.
It is hard to believe that something so obvious as the name of the fake investor’s company wasn’t considered.
The fact that Mr. James appears with a badge of the two North Korean leaders without further explanation is noteworthy. One also wonders what businessman signs a multi-million dollar deal only hours after having received a catalog, and without having seen the actual products. Perhaps the agreement was very general, so a good explanation might emerge when the full version of the film is released—hopefully soon—along with the catalogs for those interested in looking at them.
Furthermore, it is unclear why Brügger takes the risk of flying The Mole to Washington, including all immigration procedures, to get something like a very basic crash course on spycraft by “Max,” a man who had previously worked for the CIA. Why risk getting the attention of US intelligence agencies for a man who, at that time, was preparing a secret arms deal with North Korea? And why trust a shady former CIA agent, when there are numerous people who have similar qualifications in Scandinavia and the Danish state broadcaster DR, as quoted above, has set up related workshops with experienced advisers and intel people?
Another question is whether, and how, everyone was able to avoid coming to the attention of the Europeans. The way North Koreans felt free to fly into Europe and meet with Mr. James to talk about arms deals and secret munitions facilities raises a few tough questions in this regard. Were European intelligence and law enforcement agencies aware of what was happening under their nose?
From the perspective of the other side, the inability of the North Koreans to find out there is no Taga Group, and that Mr. James is not a billionaire, is astonishing. Why would they sign contracts with a man they don’t know, and even let him take copies of their arms catalog, including a price list, out of the country? Were the North Koreans planning to scam Mr. James, never intending to send him any goods after receiving the payment, like Dasouqi and Cao de Benós said of themselves? At least one North Korea arms expert, Bruce Bechtol, thinks not. Or, did a combination of greed, amateurism, lack of internet access and fierce inter-agency competition lead to this blatant neglect of basic due diligence procedures?
The willingness of the North Koreans to be filmed even in crucial moments is staggering. We find this highly unusual, having traveled to the country and knowing the strict regulations on filming even harmless everyday scenes. The argument Larsen provides to the North Koreans is that he is making propaganda videos to support the work of the KFA, which allegedly satisfies them. The North Koreans in this documentary are either enormously naïve, or we are not being told the full story.
The latter is actually to be expected and is not necessarily a sign of something untoward. Compressing such a long story into a documentary of just two hours inevitably means leaving out a lot. We can also assume that certain aspects of the business dealings were deliberately left undocumented for personal reasons; there are only very vague hints at nighttime entertainment in Pyongyang and in Kampala, for example.
So have we all been set up by a group of actors, like the North Korean Embassy in Sweden claimed in its first reaction on October 15, 2020? After careful consideration of the footage, we do not think so. The identity of some of the individuals involved can be confirmed. The most obvious one is Alejandro Cao de Benós. Then there is his contact, Mr. Kang, who is also seemingly known to North Korea’s Chinese weapons dealers. But there are others, too, such as Mr. Ju, a North Korean who formerly was a diplomat in Australia, where he appeared on television, and one other member of the North Korean entourage from Pyongyang, who has been identified as a former diplomat. Mr. Dasouqi and the gentlemen from Uganda are also known individuals. It would not be surprising to learn that many of the protagonists were lying to each other, but they are nevertheless real people.
What Have We Learned, and What Will Be the Consequences?
Whether every single allegation made in the documentary is correct or not, there is no doubt that North Korea’s already battered reputation has been further damaged. Previous reports on how North Korea is trying to circumvent sanctions are being confirmed and dramatically illustrated. Supporters of tightened sanctions and tougher controls will feel encouraged. While some advocates of engagement and opponents of sanctions will argue that the documentary only shows what happens if a regime is left with few options for economic survival, others might be disappointed enough to drop their dovish position.
Furthermore, we get a deep insight into the unpleasant personality of Alejandro Cao de Benós, who reveals himself as a racist and gossips about fellow supporters of North Korea with an arrogant and dismissive attitude. The source of his high self-esteem and condescending attitude is entirely unclear. He does not speak even basic Korean despite his claims of years of closeness to the country and its culture. His alleged access to the top level in North Korea is more than questionable. One thus wonders whether this documentary is also the end of the KFA as we know it.
As usual when things go so utterly wrong, someone will be held responsible. The North Koreans who trusted Larsen and Mr. James will face tough questions from their authorities, or worse. Aside from having lost money and facing tightened sanctions enforcement, the regime has been exposed and ridiculed.
On a side note, although “medicine” is mentioned in the signed contract, it is in fact only Cao de Benós who explicitly talks about methamphetamine. The North Koreans are either more careful, or they are primarily interested in selling weapons, which is bad enough but something that many countries, including liberal democracies, do without too many qualms.
Last but not least, an important general lesson for everybody is that small hidden cameras and recording devices can be everywhere—in books, radios, lamps, etc. Be careful what you say to whom, unless you want to have that same stunned look on your face one day as Alejandro Cao de Benós when he learned he was set up.
Quote translated into English from: Per M E Christiansen, “DR-dokumentaren ’Muldvarpen’ rejser etiske spørgsmål,” DR, October 14, 2020, https://www.dr.dk/etik-og-rettelser/transparens/dr-dokumentaren-muldvarpen-rejser-etiske-spoergsmaal.