Both Koreas eyeing better diplomatic relations with Havana

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Both Koreas eyeing better diplomatic relations with Havana

Washington is expected to reopen its embassy in Cuba this month after half a century, a move that South Korea hopes will provide momentum in it opening diplomatic ties with the Caribbean nation.

Pyongyang has also been working on bolstering its relations with Havana, as relations between Cuba and South Korea have bloomed amid increased cultural and economic exchanges.

Seasoned North Korean diplomat Kang Sok-ju, the director of the Workers’ Party International Affairs Department, made a visit to Cuba last week, which came as Pyongyang has appeared to be reaching out to one of its few remaining allies.

Last December, U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans to resume diplomatic ties with Havana.

The former Cold War-era foes are expected to open embassies in each other’s capitals soon, their biggest step toward normalizing relations so far.

Relations between North Korea and Cuba can be traced back to the friendship between Kim Il Sung and Fidel Castro, and Pyongyang appears to be reconfirming its relationship with the country.

Seoul has also been expanding cooperation with Cuba following Washington’s decision to open diplomatic relations last winter.

Through July 5, Korea will host a Cuban culture and arts festival, with Cuban government officials visiting for the first time.

While addressing the National Assembly’s foreign affairs committee on Wednesday, Minister of Foreign Affairs Yun Byung-se said that the ministry “holds a lot of interest and is putting in a lot of effort” to open diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Similarly, in a Foreign Ministry report to the National Assembly in February, Yun stated that moving to normalize relations with Cuba would be an important diplomatic goal this year.

Cuba is one of the four nations in the world with which Korea has no diplomatic ties.

Cuba recognized the South Korean government in July 1949, and even provided financial aid during the 1950-53 Korean War. However, relations were severed in 1959 after Fidel Castro came to power.

Since then, economic exchanges have increased over the past decade, while the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (Kotra) opened up an office in Havana in 2005.

According to Kotra, between January and November 2014, the total volume of trade between the two countries stood at $57 million.

In February, the Korean government also provided $3 million to Cuba in development aid to raise food productivity and alleviate poverty in the country.

Cultural exchanges have flourished this year, with Korean writers and poets introducing Korean literature at an international book fair in Havana.

A 10-day Cuban culture and arts festival, hosted by Korea’s Foreign Ministry and supported by the Korean Foundation, is being held in Seoul and is set to run until Sunday.

The festival, attended by a delegation of Cuban government officials, musicians and artists, highlights Cuban jazz music and critically acclaimed Cuban films.

On June 23, Alfred Ruiz, the director-general of the external affairs division of Cuba’s Culture Ministry, also visited Korea for the first time, speaking with officials here on how to expand cultural cooperation between both nations.

However, at the same time, Pyongyang has worked to increase diplomatic gestures toward Cuba.

North Korea’s top diplomat Kang Sok-ju met with President Raul Castro on Saturday, the North’s official Rodong Sinmun reported.

The paper went on to report that the Cuban leader emphasized that despite changes in the world, Havana will continue to adhere to socialism, and that the “friendly relations” between the two nations, established by the camaraderie of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung and Fidel Castro, will continue to “remain unchanged.”

Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong, who made a visit just three months ago in March, also relayed a handwritten letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to emphasize the friendly relationship between Pyongyang and Havana.

“Following in the footsteps of the United States, if South Korea normalizes relationship with Cuba, one of the few remaining socialist allies of North Korea, Pyongyang will be put in a very difficult diplomatic situation,” said Song Gi-do, an international politics professor at Chonbuk National University.

“North Korea is speaking of its past bond with Cuba to draw the country in, but Cuba is highly likely to prioritize the economic benefits it can gain from opening up diplomatic relations with South Korea.”

BY YOO JEE-HYE, AN HYO-SEONG and SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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