Concern in Pyongyang over Protests in Havana?

On July 11, mass demonstrations erupted in Havana and other cities throughout Cuba, with thousands of Cubans demanding that Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel step down. It took the government several days to restore order while street protests continued. These were the largest anti-government demonstrations in Cuba in over 25 years.

The protests were triggered by food shortages and economic difficulties compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Cuban economy contracted 11 percent in 2020 and another 2 percent in the first half of 2021. Energy shortages have been serious since Venezuela cut back delivery of subsidized oil to Cuba, which caused cutbacks in electric power generation and created transportation issues. The Covid-19 pandemic has decimated the Cuban tourist industry, a mainstay of the island’s economy. The economic downturn has created food and medicine shortages that have forced Cubans to queue for hours for basic goods, leading to continued belt tightening.

A government show of force and well-publicized arrests allowed authorities to reestablish sufficient order in the capital city for the regime to hold a mass rally on Saturday, July 17, six days after the protests began. Raúl Castro, who is the brother of founding revolutionary Fidel Castro and who stepped down as head of the Cuban Communist Party in April, was brought out of retirement for the rally to bolster the lackluster Cuban president Díaz-Canel.

In a major speech at the rally, the president acknowledged shortcomings but placed the blame for the protests on U.S.-supported “counterrevolutionaries." The economic hardships were blamed on U.S. economic sanctions against the country. Cuba’s “enemy has once again thrown itself into destroying citizens’ sacred unity and tranquility,” the president said.

Words of Support from Pyongyang

On July 16, the North Korean Foreign Ministry issued a statement on the anti-government demonstrations in Cuba, blaming “backstage manipulation of outsiders and tenacious anti-Cuba blockade moves to obliterate socialism and revolution.” The press spokesman expressed North Korea’s “full support and solidarity to all the efforts and measures of the Cuban government and people to defend the dignity and sovereignty of the country and safeguard the country and revolution and the socialist gains.”

In case these pointed, though not explicit, criticisms were not clear enough, a couple of days later Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Pak Myong Guk made the blame for Cuba’s problems explicit: “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 has been proved by the fact that the high-level U.S. officials engaged themselves in instigating and agitating anti-government protests soon after the occurrence of the disturbances.”

Vice Minister Pak then offered North Korea’s “full support and solidarity to the Cuban government and people who have risen up in the nationwide struggle to strongly reject the [U.S.] scheme to stifle Cuba, defend to the end national dignity and sovereignty as well as the gains of socialism won at the cost of blood.”

The Pyongyang-Havana Axis

Cuba and North Korea have maintained a cordial relationship, though the economic ties between the two are limited. The most important reason for this positive relationship is that the two countries share a common “enemy.” For both, the United States is the principal antagonist. The United States led the UN military coalition in the Korean War that prevented Kim Il-sung from uniting Korea under his dictatorship by force. Additionally, the United States continues to be a leading opponent of North Korea’s effort to expand and improve its nuclear arsenal. For Cuba, the United States has been the principal challenge to the totalitarian Castro regime. This common enemy is the glue that binds the two countries, and both see it in their interests to cooperate.

Under U.S. law, both Cuba and North Korea are designated “state sponsors of terrorism” for repeatedly providing support for acts of international terrorism. This ultimate label of censure applies to only four countries: Cuba, North Korea, Iran, and Syria.

The mutual visits between senior leaders of Cuba and North Korea clearly demonstrate their special relationship. In 2017, North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong-Ho made an official visit to Havana, and he was received by then Cuban president Raúl Castro. Reports on the visit spoke of a “brotherly encounter” and “historic friendship.” In addition to meetings between government counterparts, senior party officials were also on the visit circuit. In August 2018, Choe Ryong-hae, a member of the presidium of the North Korean Workers’ Party Political Bureau, was in Cuba as “a special envoy of comrade Kim Jong-un.” Miguel Díaz-Canel visited North Korea shortly before he assumed the post as head of government and soon afterward also became head of the Cuban Communist Party.

Another very clear indication of the close relationship between Pyongyang and Havana is the very vocal Cuban defense of North Korea in the United Nations at the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. Each UN body has an annual debate on North Korea’s Human Rights abuses.

In 2014, just a few months after the UN Commission of Inquiry released its historic report on North Korea’s human rights abuses, the UN General Assembly considered a resolution that was sharply critical of North Korea on its human rights record. The resolution called upon the UN Security Council to refer the government leaders of North Korea to the International Criminal Court because of their role in the country’s human rights violations. The North Koreans saw this as directed against Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Cuba offered an amendment and led a vigorous debate and lobbying effort to remove that language from the resolution. Diplomats told CBS News at that time that “the intensity of the lobbying was unparalleled.” The Cuban amendment was resolved in a “cliff-hanger” vote, but it was ultimately defeated. The final resolution critical of North Korea, including the call for the UN Security Council to refer North Korean leaders to the International Criminal Court, was ultimately approved by a General Assembly vote of 111 countries in favor, 19 opposed, and 55 abstained.

In addition to the reported visits involving government and party officials engaging in “comradely” talks, cooperative efforts at the United Nations, and other cooperative actions that are given media publicity, clandestine cooperation—particularly in the area of arms dealing—also appears to be an important element of the Pyongyang-Havana relationship. Occasionally such joint activities are exposed, giving a much more sinister cast to the cooperation between the two countries.

In 2013, for example, a North Korean ship was stopped in the Panama Canal and found to be carrying prohibited sophisticated military hardware carefully hidden under bags of sugar being transported from Havana to North Korea. The North Korean captain tried to commit suicide after his ship was stopped and searched while transiting the canal. The ship and the military goods were seized by Panamanian officials. After this shipment was publicly revealed, Cuban government officials publicly said that the military goods were obsolete defensive equipment being sent to North Korea for repair, not smuggled prohibited goods. In the subsequent thorough search, MiG fighter jets and other military goods recently used but in working condition were found. The shipment clearly involved sanctions violations.

There have been other periodic indications of weapons dealings between the two countries in violation of UN sanctions against North Korea. The extent and scope of these covert activities suggest the Pyongyang-Havana relationship is of high importance for both countries, but the full extent is not publicly known.

Are the Cuba Events a Warning to North Korea?

The demonstrations in Cuba are not just a time for North Korea to demonstrate solidarity with the communist regime in Havana. There is a good possibility that these events in Cuba are a concern to at least some of North Korea’s leaders because what happened in Cuba might also happen in their own country. The street protests in Cuba may be seen by some in North Korea as a warning. A common foe is not the only thing uniting Pyongyang and Havana: the two countries have similar authoritarian regimes and command economies, both are facing serious economic complications because of the international economic slowdown, and both are encountering significant domestic healthcare problems because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

All told, though, there are significant differences between the two countries. North Korea has a population over twice the size of Cuba’s, but Cuba’s economy is more robust. The gross domestic product (GDP) of Cuba is 2⅓ times the size of the North Korean economy. And Cuba has a per-capita GDP over five times the size of North Korea’s. Both countries are facing serious economic problems. The economy of Cuba is heavily dependent on foreign tourism, and the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has led to a dramatic decline of international travel, has had a serious impact.

North Korea’s economy has also faced serious disruption in connection with the draconian steps the government has taken to stop the spread of the Covid-19 virus. At the Party Congress in January 2021, Kim Jong-un admitted that the economy “tremendously fell short of goals in almost every sector.” Some 90 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade is with or through China, and in 2020, trade with China plummeted by more than 75 percent due to the dual impact of the pandemic and sanctions. In April 2021, Kim Jong-un warned that the country may be facing another “Arduous March,” referring to the devastating famine that struck the country in the mid-1990s.

In the face of the global pandemic, both Cuba and North Korea are facing medicine and treatment shortages. One of the relative successes of the Castro revolution was the development of reasonably good medical care, but the pandemic has strained Cuba’s medical resources as the country faces one of the highest per-capita Covid-19 caseloads in the Americas. North Korea’s medical infrastructure is much less developed than Cuba’s, and the serious concern about severely limited resources to deal with the pandemic may well be the reason Kim Jong-un has cracked down hard to prevent the spread of the virus.

North Korea appears to have some greater ability to control access to information than Cuba. North Korea (along with China) has imposed among the most stringent controls for media access in the world. Cubans have some access to internet and social media sites. It was only after the street protests broke out in Cuba last week that government authorities blocked Cuban residents’ access to Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Telegram, and other such social media outlets. North Koreans have never had such access to social media sites, and monitoring of internet communication in North Korea is very highly developed.

Overall, the North Korean regime has been more repressive and obsessive about maintaining control of its population. North Korea is concerned with deteriorating economic conditions and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, North Korean leaders are likely watching developments in Cuba much more closely than they might have done in the past. At present, certainly there is no indication that Cuba-style protests are in the offing for North Korea. Nonetheless, it is quite likely that some North Korean officials are looking very carefully at events and developments in Cuba right now.

Ambassador Robert R. King is a senior adviser in the Office of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Previously, Ambassador King served as special envoy for North Korean human rights issues at the U.S. Department of State from November 2009 to January 2017.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.