Cuban envoy meets with North Korean officials

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Cuban envoy meets with North Korean officials

Pyongyang is hard at work bolstering its diplomatic relations with traditionally friendly countries, the latest being Cuba, to counterbalance its frosty relations with Seoul and its ongoing sanctions.

Salvador Valdes Mesa, a Cuban vice president, arrived in Pyongyang on Tuesday as a special envoy to President Raul Castro. The North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Wednesday that Mesa met with senior Pyongyang officials later that day at the Mansudae Assembly Hall. Choe Ryong-hae, a vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party central committee, was among them.

Other officials he met included Sin Hong-chol, a vice foreign minister, Ri Chang-geun, a senior official of the party’s international department, and diplomats from the Cuban Embassy in Pyongyang.

Former Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong, also a vice chairman of the Workers’ Party central committee, emphasized “expanding and developing a tradition of friendly relations” between the Cuban Communist Party and North Korea in the future, reported the KCNA. The veteran diplomat also organized a dinner reception for Mesa.

There was interest to see if Mesa will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during his visit, as he was sent as a special envoy of Castro.

Kim Jong-un in October held talks with Liu Yunshan, the fifth-ranking official of the Chinese Communist Party, but generally has avoided making contact with foreign leaders since. He has yet to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and has not traveled overseas to meet with foreign leaders since he took office in December 2011, after the death of his father Kim Jong-il.

Mesa met with Xi in Beijing on Monday, where he explained the outcome of the Cuban party congress.

Cuba has consistently remained North Korea’s rare international ally for over half a century.

In 2013, Panama intercepted a North Korean ship containing Cuban arms hidden underneath bags of sugar, bringing to question the extent of the arms trade between Cuba and North Korea.

And just last month, Cuba sent a congratulatory message to the North Korean leader calling to strengthen “fraternal bonds and cooperation” between the two countries, following the regime’s seventh ruling Workers’ Party congress, the first of its kind in nearly four decades. On May 24, Kim Yong-chol, a member of the Worker’s Party politburo, who is believed to have masterminded the 2010 sinking of South Korea’s Cheonan warship, visited Cuba and met with President Castro, agreeing to strengthen historic ties.

Seoul also has been stepping up its diplomatic efforts toward Cuba, along with other nations that have traditionally maintained friendly relations with Pyongyang.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se made a two-day visit Havana at the beginning of this month, holding talks with his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez, on June 5 in a move to build bilateral ties with the country. The two countries have yet to establish diplomatic ties.

This was the first visit to Cuba by a South Korean foreign minister and follows the normalization of bilateral ties between Havana and Washington last year.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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