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ConflictsNorth Korea

South Korea and Cuba establish ties, rattling North Korea

March 7, 2024

Cuba has reportedly been described as a "traitor nation" in North Korean circles after South Korea announced it was opening a diplomatic mission in Havana.

A performance at a North Korean stadium in honor of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel
South Korea is increasing its influence in Cuba, undermining decades long-friendship between Pyongyang and HavanaImage: AP/picture alliance

South Korea has scored a diplomatic victory against its rivals in Pyongyang by establishing formal ties with the government in Cuba, long seen as North Korea's unshakeable ally.

In mid-February, Seoul announced it would be opening a diplomatic mission in Havana, Cuba's capital, to help South Korean companies gain a new foothold in the Caribbean, provide a new outlet to promote Korean culture and enable the island nation to benefit from new sources of development and other assistance.  

The South Korean government did not mention whether the move would impact Cuba's traditionally close relations with North Korea.

However, analysts agree that Seoul was in part motivated by a desire to weaken Pyongyang's network of allies. They point out that this is the very same tactic that North Korea has attempted in the past.

No statement from Pyongyang

There has been no official comment from the North Korean government, and state-run media have not reported the new Seoul-Havana ties, although sources in North Korea quoted by NK News, an American news website, say Cuba is being described as a "traitor nation."

In further indications of Pyongyang's displeasure, it pointed out North Korean newspapers have stopped reporting on news about Cuba, which was previously the third most cited nation in domestic media after China and Russia.

Significantly, the name of the Cuban ambassador to Pyongyang was left out of media reports about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's birthday celebrations in late February.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un raise joined hands during a welcome ceremony in Pyongyang
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel (l) visited Pyongyang in 2018Image: AP/picture alliance

In years past, Cuba was often praised in state-run media as North Korea's friend and ally.

North Korea was delighted, for example, when Havana declared that its athletes would not take part in the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympic Games in solidarity with the North, even though other communist allies of Pyongyang sent their competitors to attend the Games.  

The two Communist-ruled nations maintained their ties in the decades to come, defying international sanctions. In 2013, Panamanian officials discovered missile components and parts for two obsolete Mig-21 fighter jets buried under bags of sugar aboard a North Korean freighter, which Cuba reportedly sent to North Korea for repairs.

Cuba admits shipping arms to N. Korea

South Korea sees Cuba as 'interesting and mysterious'

That sort of cooperation pales into insignificance when compared to the windfall that South Korean trade, tourists and development assistance can bring to the island nation. 

"Cuba was one of the last countries in the world that South Korea did not have diplomatic relations with, and it was widely understood that it is important for Seoul to have as many international ties as possible," said Kim Seong-kyung, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. 

"The Korean public also sees Cuba as an interesting and mysterious country, and it is likely this will lead to an increase in tourism," Kim told DW.

"Yes, this will have come as a big shock to North Korea, and it is also a surprise that they were able to keep it a secret from Pyongyang," said Rah Jong-yil, a former diplomat and head of the South Korean intelligence department charged with monitoring North Korea.

"Cuba has always been a very faithful partner, but things have changed," he said. "South Korea has been stepping up tourism and commercial exchanges in recent years, and there are more links between the two governments, so this is a natural progression for both countries."

Pyongyang forced to bring diplomats home

The diplomatic thaw between Havana and Seoul comes as the North is being forced to shut a number of its embassies around the world, notably in Spain, Hong Kong, Angola and Uganda.

Some suggest this is due to Pyongyang struggling to cover the costs associated with operating the diplomatic outposts, but analysts have also suggested North Korean leadership is reducing the risk of its diplomats defecting while abroad.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un
North Korea and Cuba are among the few remaining Communist-ruled states in the worldImage: AP/picture alliance

At the same time, reports are that Poland, Sweden, and several other European countries are starting to inspect their diplomatic facilities in Pyongyang, which have been closed since the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.

"North Korea is trying to stretch out its diplomatic links, but it will be in shock that the South has diplomatic relations with Cuba now," Kim said.

Thaw between Seoul and Havana 'inevitable'

Rah also sees the change as a diplomatic setback for the North. However, he argues that was "inevitable" that Cuba would seek to forge ties with Seoul sooner or later, given the discrepancies in the wealth and development of the two Koreas.

"North Korea has been losing ground on the South for many decades, so it is hard to say that there is any sort of diplomatic 'competition' between them anymore," he said. "It is like a heavyweight boxer taking on a lightweight, and the outcome is obvious."

Edited by: Darko Janjevic

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea