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(LEAD) Speculation mounts on Cuban visit by North Korea's No. 2 man

All Headlines 15:09 August 17, 2018

(ATTN: CHANGES headline, dateline; ADDS comments of Seoul experts from 9th para)

SEOUL/MEXICO CITY, Aug. 17 (Yonhap) -- Choe Ryong-hae, known as North Korea's second most powerful man, is visiting Cuba to discuss ways to improve the countries' bilateral relationship, a wire report said Friday.

According to Cuba's official news agency Prensa Latina, Choe, vice chairman of the Central Committee of the North's Workers' Party, arrived in Havana, the capital of Cuba, on Thursday, leading a North Korean delegation.

"Choe is on a working visit to the island and was received yesterday by the first vice president, Salvador Valdes, with whom he reviewed the ties between both countries," the report said.

A photo captured from the Prensa Latina News Agency on Aug. 17, 2018, shows North Korea's Choe Ryong-hae (L) visiting Cuba. (Yonhap)

Choe also met with Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez, and they discussed international issues as well as bilateral matters. The news agency quoted the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs as saying, "The meeting took place in a fraternal context, where the visitor and Rodriguez agreed to highlight the bonds of brotherhood and fraternity that unite peoples, parties and governments."

Cuba and North Korea have maintained relations since 1960 and currently have agreements for cooperation in various sectors, including education and agriculture, it added.

Choe's visit came about a month after Ri Su-yong, director of the Workers' Party International Affairs Department, visited Havana for meetings with top Cuban leaders, including President Miguel Diaz-Canel and Raul Castro, first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba.

Ri also paid a visit to Iran later.

The successive visits to Cuba by top North Korean officials are seen as part of Pyongyang's efforts to cement relationships with its socialist allies amid the world's rapidly changing diplomatic environment, watchers say.

They also speculate that Pyongyang may use Cuba, whose relations with the U.S. have recently been strained under the Trump presidency, to put pressure on Washington to declare the end of the Korean War.

Indeed, the North's media have recently stepped up calls on the U.S. and South Korea to formally end the 1950-53 war and ease sanctions ahead of an upcoming Pyongyang visit by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

"North Korea seems to pursue a strategy of blaming the U.S. if the ongoing bilateral negotiations are broken. The North is also applying pressure on the U.S. by widening its diplomatic boundary and trying to present itself as a normal state," professor Kim Joon-hyung of Handong University said.

On the other hand, some analysts say Choe is in Havana to invite top Cuban officials to attend the North's 70th founding anniversary ceremony that falls on Sept. 9.

"Choe is a very high-ranking envoy, and his primary goal of visiting Cuba may be to ask for the dispatch of a high-ranking congratulatory delegation," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said Pyongyang could be persuading Cuba to send a congratulatory delegation on the occasion of the North's founding anniversary.

"In truth, North Korea has lost many diplomatic channels, having been sanctioned for its nuclear weapons development," Shin said. "The North is now trying to break away from U.S. pressure diplomacy by restoring its traditional friendship abroad."


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