A rare economic delegation arrived in Seoul Monday. The mission consists of officials and businessmen from Cuba, one of the four countries with which Korea has no diplomatic relations.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the delegation will stay here until Friday to seek ways to increase bilateral trade and investment. So far, only Cuban state company officials have visited Seoul and this is the first time for a high-level official to visit the country.
The delegates will meet with Korean government officials and visit the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA), Hyundai Motor, Hyundai Mobis and Hyundai Engineering & Construction.
So far, Cuba has been an unknown country to South Koreans except for some sports games. The Caribbean island country recognized South Korea in 1949 and provided the poverty-stricken South with $2.79 million during the 1950-53 Korean War. But their relations were severed in 1959 when Cuba was communized.
Instead, Cuba has built up close relationships with North Korea. Following the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1960, Cuba’s longtime leader Fidel Castro visited Pyongyang in 1986 to meet with then North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. Cuba signed a free trade agreement with the North in 1997.
Cubans’ contacts with South Koreans have been rare despite former President Roh Tae-woo’s ``Northern Policy’’ declared in 1991. In 2001, then National Assembly Speaker Lee Man-sup visited Cuba to attend a meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and met with Castro. In the same year, a Cuban culture ministry official attended a World Tourism Organization (WTO) conference in Seoul.
History shows that relations with Cuba began with Korean immigrants in the early 1900s, when the Korean Peninsula was under Japan’s colonial rule. Of more than 2,000 immigrants who were sent to Mexico, nearly 300 traveled to Cuba in 1921 to work on collective farms. At present, 300 Korean Cubans from 80 households reportedly live in the communist country.
The delegation’s visit allegedly resulted from Cuba’s growing interest in Korean businesses, especially automobile and electronics companies, which have been raising their profiles in the Cuban market.
Currently, Korean exports to Cuba remain at about $200-$300 million a year but the prospect for export growth is bright. In fact, there has been intermittent talk about secret contacts with Cuba but little progress was reported owing to the country’s passivity.
Foreign ministry officials say it may be different this time, noting that the Seoul visit was realized at the request of Cubans. It’s too early to foster premature expectations for an epoch-making deal but the visit could serve as a catalyst for the enhancement of mutual cooperation in diverse fields.
We feel it necessary for the government to make more active diplomatic efforts toward Cuba in consideration of looming threats from North Korea and expect that the two countries will set up official ties in the not-so-distant future.