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South Korea establishes diplomatic ties with Cuba in surprise move
2024-02-20
Korea and Cuba established diplomatic ties for the first time Wednesday.
 
“The establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, the only country in Central and South America and the Caribbean that we did not have ties with, is an important turning point in strengthening our diplomacy with South America,” the Foreign Ministry in Seoul said in a statement.
 
The two governments struck the agreement via their representative offices to the UN in New York on Wednesday.  

Having agreed to establish ambassador-level posts in each other’s countries, Korea and Cuba will work on opening their embassies shortly, it said.
 
Cuba has long maintained close relations with North Korea, having established ties with the North in 1960, a year after the Cuban Revolution, which saw Fidel Castro take office.
 
Castro maintained close ties with Kim Il Sung, the founder of the North Korean regime.
 
The Cuban president's 1986 visit and meetings with Kim and his son, Kim Jong-il, received the media spotlight, as did the North's aid to Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis and at the end of the Cold War. 
 
Seoul attributed its success in flipping the North's old ally into the South's new partner to bilateral economic and cultural ties, including the influence of Hallyu.
 
"Cuba seems to have judged that there would be little public animosity toward establishing diplomatic relations with South Korea at the risk of deteriorating relations with North Korea," a high-ranking South Korean Foreign Ministry official told the JoongAng Ilbo. "The general public's affinity for Korean dramas and music seems to have played a role in this."
 
Cuba's economic needs may have also played a part in its decision to establish relations with South Korea, the world's 13th-largest economy. The inflation rate in Cuba was 30 percent last year.
 
"Through this establishment of diplomatic ties, we expect we can establish an institutional foundation to expand economic cooperation between the two countries and support the advancement of Korean companies, as well as provide systematic consular assistance to Korean citizens visiting Cuba," said Lim Soo-suk, spokesman of the Foreign Ministry in Seoul.
 
Around 14,000 South Koreans visited Cuba every year before the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the ministry. 
 
Descendants of the Korean immigrants who moved to Cuba from Mexico in the 1920s also number around 1,100.
 
According to the ministry, Korea exported $14 million in goods to Cuba and imported some $7 million in 2022. 
 
The establishment of diplomatic ties is a milestone for the South Korean government, which now has ties with all UN members except Syria.
 
Establishing ties with Cuba was first floated during the Kim Dae-jung administration in 2000. 
 
The initiative faltered, however, before the Park Geun-hye administration picked it up in 2016 when then-Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se visited Cuba — the first time that a foreign minister of South Korea did so.
 
The agenda was primarily dropped again, however, as the United States pressed sanctions against Cuba during the Donald Trump administration. Park herself was embroiled in a power abuse scandal and impeached before the end of her presidency in 2017. 
 
While the subsequent Moon Jae-in administration also sent its foreign minister to Cuba in 2018 to attend a session of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba was reportedly not a top priority for the Moon government as it pursued better relations with the North.
 
This changed with the Yoon Suk Yeol administration. Former Foreign Minister Park Jin discussed establishing diplomatic ties with the vice foreign minister of Cuba in Guatemala during a meeting of the Association of Caribbean States last year, starting the process again.
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