The visit marks a continuation of friendly relations between the two nations that have lasted since 1960, despite Havana’s staunch opposition to pursuing nuclear weapons. Some diplomats maintain that the relationship with Cuba might be of use in deescalating the current conflict, while others fear that talks are not so innocent.
The two nations share a common bond in their strong government-controlled economies. Although under Castro, Cuba has taken small steps towards the more market-oriented communism of China and Vietnam, both Cuba and North Korea (to a greater extent) retain qualities of Soviet-style command economies. Part of the visit is viewed by North Korea as an opportunity to demonstrate that it is not isolated diplomatically or ideologically in a world that seems to be increasingly turning against the East Asian nation.
Cuba continues a trade relationship with North Korea, but that relationship is nowhere near the top of their list. China leads the pack at over $5 billion in bilateral trade, while India’s bilateral trade just broke $200 million (that is until recently, when India banned most trade with North Korea after tougher sanctions were imposed by the United Nations). Trade with Cuba, however, is only about $9 million, while Cuba maintains a stronger trade relationship with South Korea, equaling about $67 million. Neither of the countries come near the top of Cuba’s list, however, with China being Cuba’s biggest trade partner at just over $2 billion.
The relationship between the two nations has been a bit shady in the past, especially after a 2013 incident in Panama, where the government discovered a load of “obsolete” Soviet weapons hidden under Cuban sugar on a North Korean vessel. Such trade would have been in violation of UN sanctions, and appeared to indicate that the two countries worked together to circumvent them. Cuba claimed that the weapons were being sent to North Korea for repairs and were to be shipped back to Cuba afterwards. However, the cargo also included two Mig-21 jet fighters which had been recently flown, calling the innocence of the transaction into question.
Whatever their trade relationship might be like, North Korea appears to have doubled down on its relationship with Cuba, expressing its intention to continue their “invincible friendship” that was “forged under the banned of socialism” to fight “against the imperialists.”
The strong declaration of the alliance between the two countries comes at a time when their relations with the US are the lowest they’ve been in years, while the visit itself is a statement from both countries. By visiting a country just 90 miles from the United States, North Korea shows that is isn’t as isolated as its perceived enemies would like it to be. As for Cuba, it shows a defiance to US pressure to cut off relations with North Korea.
Some counties are listening to the United States’ strong call to abandon economic ties with North Korea, however. This could be the main driving force for North Korea to make this recent move, attempting to strengthen whatever remaining relationships it has left.