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A New 'Axis of Evil'? North Korean Foreign Minster's Trip to Cuba Amid Growing American Pressure on Both Nations

November 21st - 2017

On November 20th 2017 North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho arrived in the Cuban capital Havana for talks with his Cuban counterpart Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla. With both countries facing increased pressure from the United States and other Western countries including harsh economic sanctions for over fifty years the two have maintained strong and growing partnerships in the political, economic, cultural and military spheres. Both Cuba and North Korea share many formative historic experiences. Both have previously faced attempted U.S. invasions under which American soldiers landed on and attempted to occupy their countries to place Western friendly governments in power - in Korea's case in the 1950s and in Cuba's in the early 1960s. Both of these invasions failed, though in Korea's case a full scale war with the United States ensued and led to the loss of 20-30% of its population in just three years - something Cuba never experienced. Both countries also accuse the United States of having attempted to use biological weapons against their populations, as well as using biological agents to assassinate their leaders. The two states have attempted to deploy nuclear weapons as deterrents to US attacks in much the same way, with both facing similar threats of invasion amid U.S. military deployments on their borders - in Korea's case South of the 38th parallel and in Cuba's case at the Guantanamo Bay naval facility.

The North Korean and Cuban militaries previously fought alongside one another during the Yom Kippur War, with both deploying troops to the Middle East to confront the Western aligned state of Israel - while U.S. pilots flew sorties for the Israeli Air Force on the other side. The shared socialist ideology, adopted by both Korea and Cuba during the Cold War which gained both states considerable Soviet support and protection, is also a factor in the two nations' sense of joint solidarity. A unique partnership between the two counties has withstood the test of time, with Cuba being one of the few countries to show solidarity with Pyongyang by boycotting the Seoul Olympics in 1988 - something neither any other Asian country nor the USSR did. Despite their many cultural differences Cuba and North Korea have as a result of their similar struggles against Western powers been natural allies, and a visit to North Korea's International Friendship Exhibition Hall shows many gifts from Cuba carrying messages of solidarity in their cause against this common enemy.

At the opening of the 21st century North Korea was designated by the United States as one of the three members of the 'axis of evil', while Cuba was designated one of the three members of the 'beyond axis of evil' states. Three of these six states have since faced war with the West and been devastated - increasing the sense of an impending threat against the three surviving 'axis members' - Iran being the third. With both North Korea and Cuba facing crippling and longstanding economic sanctions, each finds a reliable trading partner in the other - though North Korea maintains an economy far more technologically sophisticated and up to ten times as large. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Pyongyang became a leading military partner for many former Soviet military clients - providing arms compatible with Soviet systems and upgrades to older weapons systems to prevent them falling into obsolescence. An example of such cooperation between Cuba and North Korea was seen in 2014 when a shipment of Cuban MiG-21 fighters, air defence systems, missiles and command and control vehicles were intercepted in the Panama Canal - weapons which were sent to North Korea for upgrades and repairs.

Recent signs of growing political and economic ties include the establishment of a barter trade system in January 2016, high level meetings between the ruling parties the same year to discuss strengthening ties, and the North Korean government's declaration of a three day mourning period after the death of Cuba's former leader Fidel Castro. Korean leader Kim Jong Un personally visited the Cuba Embassy to pay his respects at the time, and the country sent an official delegation to the funeral in Havana. Minister Ri Yong Ho's visit to Cuba North Korea's attempt to strengthen ties with other states resisting U.S. foreign policy designs in their respective regions - referred to by several analysts as a possibly new emerging coalition. Indeed, considering Pyongyang's close ties to Tehran, Damascus, Sana'a, Naypyidaw, Harare and former ties to Tripoli, the country's strengthening ties to Cuba could well be seen as a part of this trend. While several nations including Sudan, Egypt, Uganda, Mexico, Kuwait among others have been pressured by the West in the last two years to downgrade or cut entirely their ties to Pyongyang, those states with shared anti-U.S. or anti-Western foreign policy stances have remained steadfast partners of North Korea and have maintained or even strengthened their ties to the country. It is therefore to be expected that North Korea would look to such reliable nations, Cuba included, to deepen ties at a time of increasing isolation and Western pressure.

While the subject of the discussions taking place in Havana is yet to be revealed, they are likely to be significant and could well lead to enhanced economic and particularly military cooperation. The fact that talks began on the same day the U.S. declared North Korea a state sponsor of terror and promised further sanctions only further reinforced the message that Pyongyang needed to strengthen ties to reliable partners such as Cuba. With Cuba on its part undertaking efforts to modernize its long neglected military capabilities, Pyongyang could well be the ideal partner the country needs.

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