Historical Turning Point: Establishment Of Relations Between Cuba And South Korea And Rising Tensions On Korean Peninsula – Analysis

On February 14, the news websites announced the surprising news that South Korea established diplomatic relations with the Republic of Cuba through its mission to the United Nations. In New York, the Cuban and South Korean ambassadors to the UN exchanged diplomatic credentials and thus official diplomatic relations were established.

“The decision to establish official relations between the two countries was made in accordance with the purpose and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, international law, and in accordance with the spirit and rules established in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of April 18, 1961,” announced the diplomatic mission of South Korea. It was agreed that embassies will be opened in both countries.

The news of the rapprochement between Seoul and Havana represents a kind of political sensation considering the friendly relations between Cuba and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that have lasted since the Cuban Revolution in 1959 until today. Cuba thus became the 193rd country in the world with which the Republic of Korea maintains official diplomatic contacts. After establishing official diplomatic relations with Cuba, Syria remains the only member of the UN that does not have diplomatic relations with South Korea.

North Korea – the main obstacle in relations between Seoul and Havana

Although Cuba under the leadership of President Carlos Prío Socarrás officially recognized R. Korea in 1949, a year after its founding, political and trade relations were severed after left-wing revolutionary Fidel Castro took power after a successful revolution in 1959. Given that Cuba and North Korea were communist Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War and staunchly anti-American determined, they established diplomatic relations in 1960 and continued to further develop them. It was in 1960 that the Cuban minister, the legendary Ernesto Che Guevara, visited Pyongyang and declared that Cuba should follow the North Korean model. Che was impressed by the lightning-fast post-war reconstruction of the war-torn country and the rapid industrial development. He told an American journalist that the DPRK “was a small country resurrected from the ashes of American bombing and invasion.”

Throughout the Cold War, but also after its end in 1991, Cuba and N. Korea have remained close allies and have supported each other to this day. In addition to the internal political and social similarity (one-party communist systems), the two countries were even more strongly linked by resistance to US foreign policy. Both Pyongyang and Havana were and remain under US sanctions. In 2013, in the midst of the rattling of nuclear weapons and the great crisis between Pyongyang and Washington, Fidel Castro wrote to North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un that “a nuclear war will not benefit anyone.” When Castro died in late 2016, three days of mourning were declared in the DPRK. and Kim called him a comrade. The new Cuban president, Miguel Diaz Canel, who succeeded Raul Castro, visited Pyongyang in 2018. Relations are still excellent.

Efforts to revive South Korean-Cuban relations

Intentions to thaw the frozen relations between Cuba and South Korea are not recent news. A closer look at Seoul’s foreign policy will reveal how, for nearly a quarter of a century, South Korean diplomats have been trying to revive ties with Cuba from a deadlock since the rule of President Kim Dae-jung. During his term in office in 1999, the Republic of Korea supported the UN General Assembly resolution on the need to lift the US trade embargo on Cuba, and this continued for years to come.

The Foreign Minister of the Republic of Korea, Yun Byung-se, in June 2016, during his official trip to Cuba for the 7th summit of the Association of Caribbean States (ASC), expressed Seoul’s intention to establish diplomatic ties with Cuba. Then Yun met with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez for a private meeting. However, the Cubans persistently refused to establish relations with the South. Korea in order not to irritate or hurt their communist comrades from N. Korea.

Cuban motives for cooperation

Apparently, the rapprochement between Seoul and Havana was a mutual initiative – the interests coincided. On the one hand, the Cuban economy is in a good state. Although Cuba has been in an economic crisis since the US imposed a trade embargo on it in 1960, which is still in force, the situation has been particularly difficult in the last five years. The following processes have contributed to the unenviable economic situation in Cuba: 1) the crisis in Venezuela has influenced the fact that Caracas no longer sends large quantities of subsidized oil, 2) the massive coming to power of Cuba-unfriendly, right-wing, governments in South America that don’t support cooperation, 3) negative health consequences of the corona crisis, 4) inadequate economic policies that fueled inflation (30% in 2023) are the result of the decisions of the economically unskilled President Diaz Canel.

The economic situation in Cuba is so bad that some analysts estimate that the communist regime is the weakest since the so-called “Special period“ in the early 1990s after the collapse of the USSR. This is shown by street protests and arrests of dissidents. Cuba sees South Korea as a potential partner that can help it, since the South Korean economy is extremely powerful, developed and diversified. South Korea is the 4th largest economic power in Asia and the 12th largest economic power in the world. The South Koreans can supply the Cubans with practically every product from food to the most sophisticated technology. Of course, the question is what Uncle Sam will say and whether he will allow the South Koreans to have greater trade arrangements with Cuba.

South Korean motives for cooperation

On the other hand, Seoul wants to improve its status and reputation in the world, which is already high due primarily to the economic success of the South Korean state and giants such as Samsung, LG, Kia, Hyundai, SK Hynix, but also South Korean soft powers such as the successful film industry and industry entertainment (K-pop).

Unlike N. Korea, which has positioned itself as a pariah state that defies international order and peace by rattling nuclear and ballistic missiles, South Korea wants to profile itself as a factor of security, peace and prosperity in the Far East, but also in the world. This effort has always existed among South Korean policymakers, but it has gained stronger impulses since the conservative Yoon Suk Yeol became South Korea’s president in 2022. Yoon wants to make his country a stronger global brand, according to which the Republic of Korea would not only be an exemplary democratic state that is not a case state, but would go beyond local frameworks, respond to challenges and become a global point of stability that “promotes freedom, peace and prosperity through liberal democratic values and meaningful cooperation.”

South Korea can indeed play an important global role by contributing to shaping international relations, encouraging states to adhere to accepted international rules, and mediating between developed and developing countries.

South Korea as a globally important geopolitical actor

The United States and its partners in Asia and Europe have welcomed the Yoon government’s broader diplomatic, economic and strategic efforts that extend beyond Asia. The establishment of South Korean-Cuban relations represents the culmination of efforts by South Korean diplomacy to strengthen its position in Latin America and the Caribbean. Cuba was the only country in the South American and Caribbean region that did not have official ties to Seoul.

After the establishment of relations with Havana, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea announced that they now expect formal relations with Cuba to be a “key turning point” in their efforts to strengthen ties with Central and South America, expanding their diplomatic horizons and with countries that were loyal partners of North Korea. Yoon’s administration noted that Cuba is a key country in Latin America since it has diplomatic relations with 190 countries and diplomatic-consular missions in more than 100 countries, which makes it a key country in Latin America. The process of strengthening the relationship S. Korea’s relationship with Latin America is most visible in the fields of growing cultural and people-to-people exchange across the Pacific Ocean.

A lesser-known South Korean-Cuban collaboration

In accordance with Yoon’s vision of South Korea as a globally important country, South Korean companies, once diplomatic relations are established, will be able to establish their presence in Cuba. South Korea was also present in Cuba before and had a certain influence through tourism and the Korean diaspora there. About 1,100 people of Korean descent currently live in Cuba. In the pre-pandemic period, an average of 14,000 South Koreans visited the island nation each year.

Lim Soosuk, spokesman for the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that the opening of relations with Cuba will provide new business opportunities for South Korean companies and facilitate the South. Korea providing consular assistance to its nationals in that country. “In the future, our government will actively engage in further discussions with the Cuban government to promote friendship,” Lim concluded.

Cooperation has existed before. Since the Korea Trade and Investment Promotion Agency opened a branch office in Havana in 2005, there has been a steady development of bilateral trade. In 2022, the export of S. Korea’s exports to Cuba amounted to 14 million dollars, and imports from Cuba amounted to 7 million dollars. A festival of Cuban cinema was held in downtown Seoul in the summer of 2022, while a special exhibition presented Korean films at the Havana Film Festival last December.

Heated inter-Korean relations

The thawing of Cuban-South Korean relations coincides with growing inter-Korean tensions and a new crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Since the beginning of New Year 2024, Kim Jong-un has begun to refer to South Korea as the “primary and unchanging main enemy” of the DPRK (instead of the USA) and has called for changes to the constitution to explicitly state this.

In a speech before the Supreme People’s Assembly of the DPRK in January, Kim stated that N. Korea is abandoning its long-term goal of reconciliation with its southern neighbor and has threatened to destroy the South with nuclear weapons if provoked. He rejected the policy of uniting the two Koreas into a joint state of the Korean people. According to him, this is not possible because Seoul wanted to achieve this by force.

“We don’t want war, but we have no intention of avoiding it,” Kim said, adding that N. Korea should plan for “total domination and subjugation” of its southern neighbor in the event of a war conflict.

A dangerous future

The rapprochement of Havana and Seoul is interpreted by many as a real and symbolic blow to Pyongyang (as announced by the South Korean president’s office), which could always boast of friendly and comradely ties with the communist Caribbean island. Cuba was one of the few countries in the world, apart from China, Russia, Iran and Syria, which were always ready to unequivocally support North Korea in international forums and give it diplomatic support.

Some geopolitical experts point out that the warming of relations between Seoul and Havana will very likely further increase Pyongyang’s diplomatic isolation and will result in greater pressure from the West on Kim to turn to diplomacy and abandon the policy of direct confrontation with the South. Korea. However, this is not very likely. Events on the ground show different trends.

Kim has doubled the number of ballistic missile tests in recent weeks and continued to stockpile weapons. Recently, the most relevant thing has been the testing of cruise missiles. Kim has fully embraced the rhetoric of the Cold War between the two Koreas, which has not been seen for a long time. It is quite obvious that Kim wants to more actively involve the DPRK in a global Cold War 2.0 with reliance on China and Russia against the US in order to reduce diplomatic pressure for his regime to denuclearize. The support of Beijing and Moscow to Pyongyang is not in doubt. It looks like the Korean Cold War will further intensify as well as the global geopolitical constellation that many perceive as Cold War with real wars from Sudan to Myanmar.