North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has sent a second envoy to Cuba in less than two months for diplomatic exchanges, the details of which remain unknown.
Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel met Tuesday with Choe Ryong Hae, a member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). The Cuban Communist Party’s official Granma newspaper described Choe as “a special envoy of comrade Kim Jong-un.”
Granma added that Choe delivered personal letters from the North Korean leader to Díaz-Canel and former Cuban leader Raúl Castro, who remains first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party. Granma did not detail the content of the letters but reported that Choe and Díaz-Canel discussed “issues of mutual interest on the international agenda.”
Choe is considered the most powerful man in North Korea after Kim, and second in command of the country’s military. He arrived in Havana last week and met with Vice President Salvador Mesa and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez.
Kim sent another trusted envoy, Ri Su Yong, in July to deliver a verbal message to Castro, according to the North Korean foreign ministry. Granma reported the visit in a single paragraph that said Ri, vice president of the WPK and head of its international relations department, “carried a message … from Kim Jong-un.”
Experts offered various insights for the visits.
“It would be pure speculation to state what the content of the message might be, though I can’t imagine it has anything to do with denuclearization talks,” said Frank Mora, director of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University. “Part of the message might just be the North Koreans providing an update to a long-standing friend about where things stand on the talks regarding ‘the common imperialist enemy.’ “
“There have been North Korean senior military officers that have visited Cuba over the last few years with the purpose of ‘deepening ties of solidarity’ at perceived times of tensions with the U.S.,” he added.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho made a surprise visit to Cuba in November 2017 that coincided with his country’s reinstatement after several years to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
But the situation took a surprise turn with the summit between Kim and President Donald Trump and negotiations to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. Kim also met twice with the president of South Korea and three times with the president of China. The North Korean ruler has also stepped up contacts with traditional allies such as Cuba.
“Despite years of isolation, Kim is trying to become something of a global player,” said Columbia University professor Christopher Sabatini. “The Cubans also like to have a bigger presence on the world stage and to punch above their weight.”
Cuba has close relations with North Korea. Commercial trade is minimal — little more than $8 million in 2016 — but political and military relations are so strong that in 2013 the Cuban government was caught breaking international sanctions on North Korea by sending it weapons hidden under a shipment of sugar but intercepted in Panama.
Sabatini said he would not rule out the possibility that North Korea is interested in whatever intelligence assistance Cuba can offer. The island is closer to the United States and has a more developed espionage network than the Asian country.
“But this could be an effort to avoid [the impact of] the sanctions” that the United States and other countries have imposed on North Korea, Sabatini added. “They are reaching out to people because they are really suffering. And they are giving it a shot because the United States is giving them a free pass, because of Trump being so friendly,” he added.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency has speculated that Choe, the most recent envoy, delivered to the new Cuban government an invitation to participate in a September celebration marking the country’s founding.
“I don’t doubt it,” said Sabatini. “They have to fill those empty seats.”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres