In the midst of increasing international isolation, North Korea is sending its foreign minister to an old ally: Cuba. In a short message released Friday, North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency announced that Ri Yong Ho and his delegation departed on their journey to Havana.
The move comes after a number of North Korean trading partners announced that they would be suspending trade with North Korea. Pyongyang's seventh-largest trading partner, Singapore, announced that it would halt its trade ties with the country Thursday. In September, the Philippines — North Korea's fifth-largest trading partner — said it would do the same.
In purely economic terms, Cuba is probably of negligible importance to North Korea compared to these nations: Official figures show that Havana fails to crack the top 10 trading partners, and it certainly falls far behind China, North Korea's most important economic ally.
However, at this point, Pyongyang may be hoping to shore up international partners wherever it can.
“Looking at the vast number of countries that have announced severed ties with North Korea over the past few weeks, it makes a great deal of sense for the regime to attempt to reinforce the bonds that exist in whatever ways possible,” said Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and co-editor of North Korean Economy Watch, in an email.
Notably, the move also comes at a time of increasing tension between Cuba and the United States following the Obama administration attempt at normalization of relations with Havana from 2014 onward. “Considering that the country's own detente with the U.S. appears to have stalled,” Katzeff Silberstein said, referring to Cuba, “North Korea might (reasonably) see some particular momentum.”
For Havana and Pyongyang, warm relations are nothing new. Cuba and North Korea came to be allies during the early days of the Cold War — Che Guevara, the Argentine Marxist revolutionary who played a key role in Cuba's revolution, visited North Korea in 1960 and praised Kim Il Sung’s regime as a model for Cuba to follow. Even after the Cold War ended, the two nations, now both isolated internationally, kept up their ties: Cuba also remains one of the few countries in the world to not have diplomatic relations with South Korea, for example.
The two nations were willing to flout sanctions to work together economically. In July 2013, a North Korea-flagged vessel was seized by Panamanian authorities carrying suspected missile-system components hidden under bags of sugar upon its return from Cuba. A report released the following year by a United Nations panel of experts concluded that the shipment had violated sanctions placed on North Korea, although Cuban entities were not sanctioned in the aftermath despite protests from the United States.
Crucially, the thawing of ties with Washington didn't seem to significantly damage the relationship: In December 2016, a North Korean delegation to the funeral of Cuban leader Fidel Castro emphasized that the two nations should develop their relations “in all spheres” — a comment that was echoed by Raúl Castro, according to state media reports at the time.
Since President Trump took office in January, there have been signs that the thaw with Cuba is over. Earlier this month, the Trump administration announced strict new restrictions on U.S. travel and trade with Cuba, a move that largely followed through on Trump's campaign promise to “terminate” the Obama-era normalization with Cuba.
Any sign of warming relations between Cuba and North Korea will probably also draw the attention of the Trump administration, which has used the United States' economic clout to push a variety of nations to stop their illicit economic relationship with Pyongyang. Although Cuba's official economic ties with North Korea remain small, some experts have suggested that these figures should be taken with a grain of salt.
“A key element of the Trump administration’s sanctions effort is isolating North Korea,” said Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former U.S. Treasury Department official. “The U.S. should warn Cuba about the dangers of a relationship with North Korea.”
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