North Korea’s state media confirmed that communist dictator Kim Jong-un sent a high-ranking delegation to Havana, Cuba, Tuesday for their first meeting with figurehead President Miguel Díaz-Canel since he assumed the title, and to discuss affairs of mutual interest with the actual leader of the island, dictator Raúl Castro.
While Castro handed the “president” title to Díaz-Canel, he remains the head of the Communist Party of Cuba, a position that outranks that of president.
Cuba is one of North Korea’s closest allies and has regularly defended the rogue regime in international venues such as the United Nations. The North Korean delegation’s visit will precede a scheduled dialogue between North Korean officials and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Pyongyang on Thursday.
“A delegation of the Workers’ Party of Korea led by Ri Su Yong, member of the Political Bureau and vice-chairman of C.C., WPK, left here Tuesday to visit the Republic of Cuba,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) confirmed on Tuesday, adding no more information. KCNA did note on Tuesday, however, that both Castro and Díaz-Canel had recently sent Kim Jong-un greetings and thanks for North Korea’s expression of grief following a fatal plane crash in Havana’s José Martí Airport last month.
As the North Korean delegation’s visit will be the first since Díaz-Canel became ceremonial head of the country, the South Korean news agency Yonhap suggests that experts believe “Ri’s visit appears intended to celebrate the launch of the new Cuban leadership and strengthen party-to-party exchanges.” North Korea places warm interactions with Communist Parties abroad paramount on its list of foreign policy objectives, as the Party is one of the few ways it still has of connecting to the outside world without having to abandon its policy of rampant human rights violations and consistent threatening of neighbors and ideological opponents.
North Korean state media has repeatedly championed bilateral ties with Cuba as among North Korea’s best in the world.
“The DPRK-Cuba friendship is the invincible friendship forged under the banner of socialism,” Rodong Sinmun, the state newspaper, declared in August. “The Korean and Cuban peoples keenly felt through their life experience that socialism represents the ideal and rosy future of mankind. So they have fulfilled their sacred obligation in the joint struggle against the imperialists and for building socialism.”
Rodong Sinmun applauded the repressive Cuban regime for “firmly defending the sovereignty of the country and socialism.”
In addition to public praise, North Korea and Cuba share several agreements related to intelligence sharing and economic ties, though Cuba – like all countries – is legally bound by United Nations sanctions not to conduct complete free business with North Korea. Cuba has been accused of violating sanctions in the past, most notoriously when authorities in Panama found a North Korean ship attempting to cross the Panama canal carrying illegal Cuban weapons.
The Cuba visit for North Korean officials comes shortly before Secretary of State Pompeo heads to Pyongyang on Thursday to discuss the next step in normalizing ties between Washington and Pyongyang, which the Trump administration has insisted is contingent upon North Korea abandoning its illegal nuclear program and routine threats of nuclear annihilation against the United States. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders confirmed Monday that Pompeo would visit North Korea this week to “continue the ongoing and important work of denuclearization on the Korean peninsula.”
Pompeo has made two prior trips to North Korea, the first an unprecedented surprise visit during the Easter holiday this year.