(News Focus) S. Korea’s forming of diplomatic ties with Cuba signals deeper Latin America ties, deals blow to N. Korea

SEOUL, The establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba marks a turning point in South Korea's diplomacy, with the prospect of broadening its foothold in Latin America, government officials and experts said Thursday. For North Korea, however, it means a serious blow, as Cuba, with which it has long touted the "brotherly" ties, chose to improve the relationship with its rival South that the North calls the "primary foe." Experts say it could deal a setback for North Korea at a time when it is seeking closer relations with traditional friendly nations like Russia and China, and further isolate Pyongyang from the international community. The surprise announcement from New York, made late Wednesday night (Seoul time), suggested the extremely discreet efforts made by the two countries to open diplomatic relations -- apparently to keep North Korea at bay from interfering. Cuba recognized the South Korean government in 1949, but there were no formal diplomatic relations forged. The two countries cut off their ties in 1959 after the Cuban Revolution, in which Fidel Castro seized power. The mood changed in 1999 after South Korea voted for a U.N. resolution on lifting the trade embargo against Cuba, and the two countries have maintained economic and cultural exchanges without a formal diplomatic relationship. Since the early 2000s, South Korea has proposed forging formal relations to Cuba, with the then Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se making the trip to the country in 2016 for the first time by a top South Korean diplomat, although the two sides made little headway after that. The drive gained momentum under the government of President Yoon Suk Yeol, with the vision of expanding South Korea's diplomatic horizons as the "global pivotal state." Seoul and Havana had worked under the table through their diplomatic channels in New York and Mexico, a foreign ministry official said on condition of anonymity. South Korea also delivered its intent to the Cuban side to form diplomatic relations at various multilateral occas ions, such as the summit of the Association of Caribbean States that took place in Guatemala in May last year. "The establishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba, the only country in the Caribbean region of Central and South America with which we had had no formal ties, is an important turning point in strengthening diplomacy in the region," Seoul's foreign ministry said in a release announcing the news. "It will expand economic cooperation between the two countries and support the advancement of Korean companies, and we expect it to contribute to expanding substantive cooperation, and allow us to provide proper consular assistance to our nationals," the ministry said. The establishment of diplomatic ties is expected to give a boost to economic and people-to-people exchanges. South Korea has a trade office in Havana, run by KOTRA, the state-funded trade promotion agency, since 2005 after KOTRA signed a preliminary deal with the Cuban government on trade investment. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 14,000 South Koreans visited Cuba every year, and there are some 1,100 Cubans of Korean descent, who moved from Mexico during Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula in the early 1920s, according to government data. "It is meaningful that we have built a new diplomatic foothold in the Central and South American region," a foreign ministry official said. The forming of the diplomatic relations with Cuba, on the other hand, may deal a shocking blow to North Korea, given that the belligerent regime is seeking to deepen its relations with countries that share similar ideologies and hostility toward the United States, experts said. For Pyongyang, its old friend's new relations with South Korea could mean further isolation as its leader Kim Jong-un has branded the South as the "invariable primary foe" and defined inter-Korean relations as ones that are "hostile" to each other. "Kim Jong-un is trying to build a new Cold War structure, an anti-American block with countries that share this approach, but South Korea 's establishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba thwarts this move to an extent," said Park Won-gon, a professor at Ewha Womans University. This can be interpreted as South Korea achieving its diplomatic goal of sending out a clear message to the North that provocative acts will not work and calling on the North to break free from isolation "if it wants to be treated like a 'normal state,'" Park said. "The announcement will certainly frustrate the North and prompt a very strong pushback," he added. Cuba and North Korea established their diplomatic relations in 1960. They have maintained close ties as two of the few socialist states. Both have also suffered from prolonged economic sanctions imposed by the U.N. and U.S. Source: Yonhap News Agency