North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho will arrive in Havana Monday for talks with Cuban counterpart Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla. The trip comes as both countries face deteriorating relations with the US. Speaking to Sputnik, Korea expert Dr. Leonid Petrov said the move is an attempt by Pyongyang to build a ragtag coalition against Washington.
Cuban and North Korean officials made no comment on the possible subjects of discussions, except to say that Ri will meet with Parrilla and participate in other, unspecified activities.
Speaking to Radio Sputnik, Dr. Leonid Petrov, North Korea expert and visiting fellow at Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, said that the Bloc mentality of the Cold War has returned.
“North Korea has found itself under even more tightening international sanctions. It looks like Pyongyang is now looking for business partners who would be willing to trade with them. Ri Yong-ho’s visit to Cuba demonstrates that North Korea is trying to build a new coalition – a coalition of anti-American states,” Petrov explained.
The scholar emphasized that amid deteriorating relations with a number of countries around the world amid its ongoing nuclear and missile tests, the foreign minister’s visits to Cuba is one of few real opportunities to revitalize relationship with former communist bloc allies.
Asked about the topics Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho and his Cuban counterpart may discuss, Petrov said that there is certainly already a solid base of cooperation to build on.
“The relationship between Pyongyang and Havana [is] strong. Diplomatic relations were established in 1960. The [extent of] military and economic cooperation was seen just a few years ago when old North Korean-made MiG fighters were discovered in a North Korean freighter trying to pass through the Panama Canal, hidden inside a shipment of Cuban sugar. They were suspected of violating international sanctions, so the shipment was stopped, and the North Korean crew detained. So it became obvious that North Korea and Cuba continue to cooperate both economically and in some sort of military dimension as well. These are just small things of course, but who knows – maybe there is much more substantial cooperation between the former communist allies.”
Amid discussion in Western media that the visit could mean the start of some sort of mini-Cold War, Petrov stressed that a new Cold War has been underway for at least three years, and expands far beyond the North Korea-US rivalry.
“It started in approximately 2014,” the analyst explained. “Former communist bloc countries led by Russia now create a policy of antagonism against the US-led coalition, so we see this confrontation not only in Korea, but in China, the Middle East, Southeast Asia. The bloc mentality continues, and North Korea is simply a litmus test to this process. It’s not only North Korea that is now under American and international sanctions, but also Russia.”
“This consolidation of blocs simply manifests this resurrection of this Cold War paranoia and mistrust,” Petrov added. “The US president has found himself under fire for his alleged collusion with the Russian government. This anti-Russian hysteria is continuing, and North Korea is simply trying to follow this trend, and revitalize its relations with former communist states – China, Russia, Cuba. Syria too demonstrates that the coalition mentality is very much on; I would call it Cold War 2.0.”
As for the prospects of significant military cooperation between North Korea and Cuba, the analyst suggested that the term ‘military cooperation’ would really be something of a misnomer, given the two countries’ limited military capabilities. “The two countries are small…I would [call it] ‘military reliance’, or ‘an attempt to stick together in an adverse environment’. Cuba has been treated adversely by the current US administration, and [found it] very difficult to trust [Washington]. We saw that Iran is very disappointed with Washington, and so is Cuba. North Korea is not willing to trust anything Washington may promise them.”
Accordingly, the relationship between North Korea and Cuba is highly symbolic, according to Petrov. “The Cuban economy is very depressed, and not going to go very far without US endorsement. So these so-called ‘pariah states’ feel that they are not treated fairly, and must stick together and demonstrate solidarity in the face of this adverse treatment. It’s likely that Russia and probably China are also going to join suit.”
In any case, Petrov noted that Washington’s reaction to all this is not difficult to predict. “Relations between Washington and Havana have deteriorated just in the last year since the arrival of the Trump administration. US relations with North Korea are hanging on the brink of full-fledged war, potentially nuclear war. Relations can’t be any worse, so Washington’s reaction is going to be highly negative, vilifying both the North Korean and Cuban leadership for ‘colluding and conspiring’ against the US state.”
Ultimately, the analyst said that strategically speaking, the problem for the US is that Cuba is too close. North Korea is far away, and that’s why talk of nuclear war with North Korea doesn’t bother anyone in Washington, he observed. The Cuban case is different. “We remember the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which was very sobering for the US government and the Soviet leadership, so it was resolved very quickly. It was just too close to the United States and far away from the Soviet Union. With North Korea, it’s exactly the opposite: it’s very close to China and Russia and far away from the US.”
“So what Pyongyang is trying to achieve is just to have some kind of balance of threat between Cuba and North Korea. So if something goes wrong with North Korea in the military or diplomatic theater, Cuba might reactivate its diplomatic and potentially military activity as well,” Petrov concluded.