Even a cursory look at any map (and especially a globe) of planet Earth is enough for the observer to understand that Pyongyang and Havana are not close. On the contrary, the air distance between the two capitals is a whopping 12,500 kilometers. Cuba is an island country, the largest island in the Greater Antilles group, surrounded by the warm Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. At the other end of the globe, North Korea is located, in East Asia on the Korean Peninsula, between the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea. It doesn’t take much thinking to realize that the Korean and Cuban people come from different cultural and civilization circles and have quite different traditions, customs, and beliefs.
Despite the differences in the second half of the 20th century, the two countries became “like a finger and a nail” in international relations. More than anything else, Cuba and North Korea were linked by communist ideology, belief in socialism and belonging to world communism. Very quickly, communism was followed by resistance to aggressive American imperialism. Although the Cold War ended and the world communist movement collapsed, the socialist order survived in Cuba and North Korea, and the resistance against the biggest antagonist – the USA.
Even today in 2023, North Korea and Cuba are rare countries that still follow the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, they are certainly the two countries whose policies are closest to the theoretical principles of communism. However, it must be admitted that Kim Jong-un’s regime is much more radical and leftist than the Cuban regime headed by President Miguel Diaz Canel. Despite the unexpected entanglements that characterize international relations in the 21st century, the two socialist countries cherish special relations and have no intention of giving them up. Moreover, new expressions of mutual friendship appear from year to year.
Havana and Pyongyang developed their friendship in detail during the Cold War. Diplomatic relations were established immediately after the victory of the Cuban revolution in August 1960, and embassies were opened in the two capitals. That year, the then Cuban minister, the legendary Ernesto Che Guevara, visited Pyongyang and declared that Cuba should follow the North Korean model. Che was impressed by the post-war reconstruction and rapid industrial development. He told an American journalist that the DPRK “was a small country raised from the ashes of American bombing and invasion.”
The two countries were linked more than anything else by US foreign policy. In both cases, US policy was aggressive. In the Korean War (1950-1953), it was American intervention under the auspices of the UN that prevented North Korea under the leadership of Kim Il-sung from triumphing in the war, or uniting the peninsula under the auspices of the hammer and sickle. Ultimately, Chinese intervention prevented the communist North from defeat. The outcome of the war was a truce between North and South Korea, and the border mostly remained along the 38th parallel as before the war. Quite understandably, from then on North Korea became an ardent opponent of the US, and South Korea a loyal American partner.
When the Korean War is viewed from today’s perspective, if Kim Il-sung had won the war, he would have united Korea, and after the end of the Cold War, such a communist Korea would have been America’s partner in its geopolitical match against China. This is exactly what happened in the case of Vietnam – there in 1975 the communist North defeated the democratic South and the American army so that in the 21st century, although still communist, Vietnam became an American ally. Nevertheless, fate wanted Korea to remain permanently divided, and the Korean peninsula to be a continuous crisis hotbed and a terrain where different interests of great powers such as the USA, China and Russia have been in conflict for decades.
In the case of Cuba, American policy has shown predominance since the 19th century and the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, which opposed the interference of European powers in the affairs of states on the American continents. In essence, according to the Monroe Doctrine, North and South America are “America’s backyard”. With regard to Cuba, the Monroe Doctrine was implemented during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Although the result of that war was the abolition of Spanish colonial rule and Cuban independence, Cuba became a de facto American protectorate. In the following decades, Washington behaved just like that, loftily and exploitatively towards Cuba, and the final outcome led to integration in the USA.
However, the plans of the American plans were disrupted by the Cuban Revolution, which in 1959 overthrew the hated regime of the dictator Fulgencio Batista. The revolution and the new revolutionary government under the leadership of Fidel Castro represented the indigenous expression of the Cuban people to create an independent and sovereign state. The Cuban revolution was primarily anti-colonial and was not originally communist. However, soon the aggressively hostile American attitude towards the new government will push Castro into the fold of communism. In 1961, the Bay of Pigs invasion took place when Cuban emigrants with the support of the CIA launched an unsuccessful attack. The following year, in October, the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. Eventually the Soviet missiles were removed from Cuba, but Cuba remained a staunch communist bastion prominent in the world communist movement. Moreover, Cuba began to export communism throughout Latin America and Africa.
“Identical in every way”
In such circumstances of the Cold War, the conflict between the capitalist and communist blocs, and for both Cuba and North Korea, the alliance with the other was of great importance. Both countries became respectable, elite members of world communism, they defeated American invasions, and it was logical that they wanted to create special bilateral relations. A strong anti-American partnership was forged. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the events that followed showed the North Koreans that they did not want to depend on protecting the USSR like the Cubans.
The Soviets protected Cuba from potential American intervention by supplying weapons, military material, and sending military advisers. Kim Il-sung did not want to depend on military aid from the USSR or the People’s Republic of China in the event of another Korean War, and that is precisely why he implemented the “military first” policy. Such a decision had a negative effect on the country’s economic development, so soon South Korea became more developed than its northern neighbor.
In 1968, Raul Castro declared that the views of Cuba and North Korea were “identical in every way”, which was certainly true because the leaders of both countries were intoxicated with Marxism, a belief in socialism and world communist revolution. Both countries helped national liberation (communist) movements in the Third World. In 1986, Fidel Castro visited his Korean comrades and was impressed by Kim’s cult of personality that was not woven into the tenets of Marxism-Leninism. In 1988, Cuba was one of the few countries to boycott the Seoul Olympics as an act of solidarity with North Korea. Fidel Castro later wrote that during the 1980s, Kim Il-sung, a “veteran and impeccable fighter,” sent Cuba 100,000 AK-47 rifles and matching ammunition without charging a cent.
An alliance that survived the Cold War and the Cuban thaw
Although communism collapsed in Eastern Europe in 1991, this did not mean the end of communism on the Caribbean island and the Korean peninsula. Primarily thanks to the strength of the repressive apparatus and the successful isolation of its population from external influences, communist regimes survived without transformation. The Republic of Cuba and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as one of the few remaining one-party and one-ideology communist states, know that they must stick together to maintain power and authority. Indeed, all five surviving communist states (there are also China, Vietnam and Laos) have good mutual relations despite their ideological and practical differences. Comrades do not betray comrades.
The partnership has continued to this day, and has been intensifying in recent years. In 2013, the North Korean ship Chong Chon Gang was intercepted while traveling through the Panama Canal. It was transporting Cuban weapons that were to be sent to North Korea for repair. The ship was later returned to the government in Pyongyang and the incident highlighted the trade between the two allies. Although the process of “Cuban thaw” began in December 2014 – the beginning of the normalization of relations between Havana and Washington – this did not sway Cuba from abandoning its alliance with its overseas comrades.
In March 2015, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez announced that Cuba remained with the Kim regime despite international economic sanctions against Pyongyang. Rodriguez justified his position with the view that Cuban foreign policy is guided by the principles of justice and resists Western interference in the internal affairs of sovereign and independent states. In 2015 and 2016, the Workers’ Party of Korea and the Communist Party of Cuba held joint meetings to strengthen ties. Cuban Vice President and future President Miguel Diaz-Canel visited Kim Jong-un during the meeting.
In January 2016, Havana and Pyongyang established a barter trading system that officially includes the exchange of sugar and railway equipment. Trump is also using Cubans and Koreans to avoid international sanctions and they don’t have to use money. Sugar from Cuba will come in handy for the Juche regime, while it is questionable how much railway equipment can help Cuba. But as Kim Jong-un plans to modernize the railways, the new technology could be desirable to Cubans. It is obvious that most of the trade includes weapons, although trade in consumer goods is also on the rise.
The Swedish military think tank SIPRI found that most North Korean arms dealers are fluent in Spanish, indicating that Cuba is an important destination for North Korean military exports. Cuban arms dealers can buy weapons from the DPRK with impunity, which is a huge advantage for both sides. For example arms trade with Pyongyang is a punishable offense in many countries due to sanctions. North Koreans can buy medicine and medical equipment from Cuba, since healthcare in Cuba is much more developed. Additionally, although Cuba has a population of 11 million and the DPRK 26 million, the Cubans have a more vibrant economy and can resell many products to the North Koreans through legal and less legal means.
After the death of Fidel Castro in late 2016, the government in Pyongyang declared three days of mourning and sent an official government delegation to the funeral. Kim visited the Cuban embassy to pay his respects to an old friend and friend of his grandfather and father. In early May 2017, amid high tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, Raul Castro expressed “his full support for the Korean Workers’ Party and the Korean people in their just struggle, and they will always be linked together in a united anti-American front.” In November of that year, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho paid an official visit to Havana, and was received by then Cuban President Raul Castro and Cuban Minister Bruno Rodriguez.
Reports of the visit spoke of a “fraternal meeting” and “historical friendship”. In addition to meetings between colleagues from the government, there were also meetings between party officials. In August 2018, Choe Ryong-hae, a member of the Politburo Presidium of the Workers’ Party of Korea, was in Cuba as “Comrade Kim Jong-un’s special envoy”. New Cuban President Diaz-Canel visited North Korea in November 2018, emphasizing socialist solidarity and opposition to sanctions. For the Cuban president’s birthday in 2021, Kim sent a basket full of flowers through his ambassador.
Alliance for a multipolar world
Havana and Pyongyang have remained allies for decades because ideology and aggressive American policy have strongly linked them. In the past, the comrades were looking for their place together in the world communist movement, and today they are looking for their place in the multipolar world political order. Both are committed to excellent relations with Russia, China, and Iran in order to undermine American global hegemony. It should be taken into account that the anti-Americanism of the two nations has a strong basis since under US law both Cuba and North Korea are “state sponsors of terrorism” due to their alleged continued support for acts of international terrorism. This American label still applies only to Iran and Syria. A very clear indication of the close relations between Pyongyang and Havana is the very vocal Cuban defense of N. Korea in the United Nations in the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.
Cuba is a very important and elite ally for North Korea, which does not have many allies since it has the status of an exile state in international relations. Although the North Koreans cannot profit much materially from the communist island in the Caribbean Sea, they can diplomatically and symbolically (morally). Any ally to the “hermit kingdom” (as some analysts call the Kim regime) is desirable and can show that the communist monarchy is not so alone. Throughout the Third World, the DPRK still has its allies such as Zimbabwe, Benin, Madagascar.
Although the Cold War between Cuba and the United States came to an end in 2014, this did not mark the end of Havana’s excellent relations with Pyongyang. We should not forget that the US trade embargo against Cuba is still active. Anti-imperialism is still an important item on the political agenda of the Cuban communists, and North Korea is a long-standing partner with whom the Cubans survived the American blockade. The special ties show the loyalty of the two regimes to their history and serve as an obstacle to the sudden liberalization of both systems. The Cuban regime shows that the thawing of relations with the USA does not mean giving up the achievements of the Cuban Revolution, communist ideology and socialism. Relations with Pyongyang are exactly the historical-ideological legitimation that the authorities in Havana need. American investments and trade with South Korea can bring economic benefits to Cuba, but also threaten the power of the Communist Party. It is well known that all communist parties were and remain obsessed with maintaining power at any cost.
To preserve socialism at all costs
In the summer of 2021, fears of internal rebellion bind Havana and Pyongyang more than anything else. On July 11 of that year, mass demonstrations broke out in Havana and other cities across Cuba, with thousands of Cubans demanding that President Diaz-Canel step down. It took the government several days to restore order as street protests continued. It was the largest anti-government demonstration in Cuba in more than 25 years. The protests were fueled by food and medicine shortages and other economic problems resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition, energy shortages have been a regular occurrence since Venezuela cut off the supply of subsidized oil. The pandemic has decimated Cuba’s tourism industry, the mainstay of the island’s economy. A show of force by the police allowed authorities to restore order in Havana for the regime to hold a mass rally where retired Raul Castro addressed the crowd in support of uncharismatic President Diaz-Canel. In his speech, the president himself acknowledged the failures, but blamed the protests on “counter-revolutionaries” supported by the US. US economic sanctions were blamed for the difficulties in the economy.
On July 16, 2021, the North Korean Foreign Ministry issued a statement on anti-government demonstrations in Cuba, blaming “behind-the-scenes manipulation by outsiders and persistent blockade moves against Cuba to wipe out socialism and revolution.” The spokesman expressed “the DPRK’s full support and solidarity with all the efforts and measures of the Cuban government and people to defend the dignity and sovereignty of the country and preserve the country, the revolution and socialist achievements.” A few days later, Deputy Foreign Minister Pak Myong Guk explicitly named the culprit behind the Cuban protests: “I want to make it clear that the main culprit and behind-the-scenes manipulator of the Cuban situation is none other than the United States. This is evidenced by the fact that high-ranking US officials engaged in inciting and agitating anti-government protests shortly after the outbreak of unrest.”
The week-long protests in 2021 showed why the Cuban-North Korean alliance is so vital. Although differences in governance exist, both the Cuban and North Korean regimes are essentially the same: one-party communist regimes. It is in the interest of communist comrades to cooperate so that they can find solutions together to maintain power over their own peoples (censorship, repressive measures…). Today, in the age of technological miracles, it is difficult to maintain dictatorships, as the Arab Spring demonstrated excellently. One-party systems are gradually disappearing into history. The nations show that they do not want to suffer the dictatorship of parties or individuals.
If free multi-party elections were held in Cuba and North Korea, the communist parties would lose those elections and they know it very well. That is why they and the remaining communist regimes resist multi-party changes. All communist parties in Eastern Europe in the period 1989-1991 lost the elections, except in Serbia, whose party rejected the ideals of Marxism a long time ago and became an advocate of Greater Serbian imperialism. The fear of the Cuban and North Korean spring among comrades is undoubtedly great (one only has to remember how Nicolae Ceausescu ended) and that is why they are trying to devise new ways to maintain power and authority. And so far they are doing very well.