While President Donald Trump announced Monday that North Korea would enter the blacklist of terrorism, the North Korean foreign minister made a surprise visit to Cuba.
Although the trip of the Foreign Minister of North Korea, Ri Yong Ho, had been announced on Saturday, the diplomat arrived in Havana on Monday afternoon. According to the Cuban chancellery, the minister will hold official talks with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, and “will partake in scheduled activities.”
Relations between the United States and North Korea are at the most tense in history. President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have exchanged threats about a possible nuclear conflagration, which has put the entire planet on edge. And the relations between Cuba and its neighbor to the north have cooled considerably after new restrictions imposed on Cuban companies and the crisis caused escalate.
The surprise visit of the North Korean diplomat, who has not been reflected in the main official media of the island, has surprised analysts.
“‘Honestly, I do not know what to think about that, except that Cubans have always sought to foster good relations with other regimes that face hostility from the United States,” said William LeoGrande, professor of government and Latin American specialist at American University.
“From the perspective of Cuba, the optics of the moment of the visit is not optimal,” said Richard Feinberg, professor and former head of Latin American politics during the Clinton administration.
Before the meeting with his cabinet on Monday morning, Trump announced that “North Korea is a country that sponsors terrorism” said President Trump, who even called Kim Jong-un’s government “a murderous regime.”
North Korea “must end its illegal development of nuclear and ballistic missiles” Trump insisted.
The White House did not immediately answer questions about the visit from the North Korean president to the island. The State Department limited itself to declaring the following: “We continue calling on all countries to take appropriate measures to apply maximum pressure on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” the official name of North Korea.
For Andy Gomez, acting director of the Center for Cuban Studies at the University of Miami, receiving the North Korean as an important symbolic visit and can be read as an attempt to provoke Trump.
“Symbolically, they are telling the United States that if they continue to press, they will continue to strengthen relations with other hostile countries such as Russia, North Korea or Iran. That situation would constitute a danger to the national security of the United States, he added.
Cuba could be playing with fire, the analyst suggested, because the country was removed from the list of states that sponsor terrorism in 2015 and the Trump government could change that decision.
Other experts believe that the meeting of the North Korean and Cuban leaders in Havana has nothing to do with the conflicts that both countries have with the United States.
“At this moment there are no signs that Cuba wants to improve relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and, in fact, there are signs that it is moving towards diplomatic relations with the Republic of Korea [South Korea],” he told the New Herald Fulton Armstrong, former CIA analyst and assistant researcher at American University.
Cuba does not have diplomatic relations with South Korea but it does trade with that country. In June of last year, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se visited Cuba and said that his country was willing to establish diplomatic relations with the island’s government.
According to Armstrong, “the periodic visits [of North Korean diplomats to Cuba] have been going on for decades”, are “mainly protocolar” and have produced “few concrete results”.
However, the relations between the two countries are so close that the Cuban government risked facing international sanctions in 2013, when it sent hidden weapons in a shipment of sugar to that country on a ship that was stopped in Panama.
In 2015, the vice president and possible successor of Raúl Castro, Miguel Díaz-Canel was received by Kim Jung-un in North Korea. Diaz-Canel called the relations between the two countries “eternal”.
South Korea is not the only country that has been courting the Cuban government to indirectly approach the closed North Korean regime.