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(2nd LD) S. Korean FM makes first visit to Cuba

All News 20:17 June 05, 2016

(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with details of Yun's visit, expert's remarks; CHANGES photos)
By Lee Haye-ah and Joint Press Corps

HAVANA, June 5 (Yonhap) -- South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se was in Cuba Sunday on a visit symbolic of Seoul's push to build ties with the Caribbean state with which it has no diplomatic relations.

Yun's two-day trip to Havana came as South Korea has been forging stronger ties with countries that have traditionally had close ties with North Korea, such as Uganda and Iran.

Cuba formally recognized South Korea in 1949, shortly after its independence from Japanese colonial rule, but their bilateral relations have effectively been cut off since Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959 and formed an alliance with the North.

Yun is the first South Korean foreign minister to visit Cuba. After arriving in Havana Saturday, he attended a summit of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) and held talks with some of his counterparts from the participating nations, according to South Korean foreign ministry officials. It was not immediately clear if they included Cubans.

South Korea is not among the 25 member nations of the ACS, but it has joined the group's gatherings as an observer country since 1998.

"Until now, especially under the Park Geun-hye administration, South Korea and Cuba have made various efforts to improve relations, albeit quietly," Yun told South Korean reporters in Havana. "My visit itself symbolizes that and I expect it to become another important milestone."

Yun expressed hope that the two sides will "reach the goal they want" by continuing to build trust through increased exchanges in various fields.

The United States' normalization of ties with Cuba last year led to expectations that South Korea, a U.S. ally, could also establish diplomatic relations with the island nation. But South Korean officials have guarded against such optimism, noting the strength of the Cuba-North Korea alliance that began with the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1960.

On South Korea's relations with the Caribbean states, Yun said his attendance at the ACS summit is a demonstration of Seoul's efforts to bolster ties with the region. President Park Geun-hye also made a trip to South America last year.

The minister noted a high potential for cooperation in areas such as sustainable development, climate change and tourism infrastructure, saying South Korea is considering ways to help address the growing danger posed by sand erosion on the region's coastlines.

Yun made the point in a letter circulated among the ACS nations, according to a South Korean government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. In the letter, he also urged the Caribbean states to raise their voices against North Korea's nuclear weapons program and provocations.

"It was an exceptional courtesy on the part of the Cubans to circulate a document stating our position," the official said. "It shows how much importance host country Cuba is attaching to the first visit by a South Korean foreign minister."

Chung Kyung-won, head of the Institute of Latin American Studies at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, said he expects Cuba to shift its policies on the two Koreas given that it has expressed its opposition to war on the Korean Peninsula and advocated denuclearization.

"I think there's a possibility that Cuba will choose to separate politics from the economy and culture for practical purposes rather than holding on to a blood alliance with North Korea that brings no benefits," he said.


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