The Cuba Effect on U.S.-DPRK Relations

Many Korea observers were surprised and excited by the news that President Barack Obama is redirecting U.S. policy toward Cuba from Cold War enemy to neighborly reconciliation. The dramatic change itself is big news, but people wonder if more reconciliation might be in the works—with North Korea. Unless there is substantial action by Pyongyang toward denuclearization and the dismantling of the police state, people should not get their expectations up that U.S.-DPRK relations might improve in any historic, dramatic way in the near future. A Cuba effect that is positive is highly unlikely.  Rather, the impact may be negative one for U.S.-DPRK relations. Here’s why. 

President Obama publicly stated from early on in his presidency that he wants to improve relations with Cuba. There has been no such clear, explicit statement regarding North Korea. (Statements of desire or intent are important as a way to prepare the public, even if something is to take place in the long run or even as a wish.) More important, the White House has been working toward normalization with Cuba for the last year and a half at least. That is very different from ‘strategic patience,’ and the lack of bold, creative efforts regarding North Korea. Even more important, the Obama administration has been focused on predicting, preventing, and containing aggressive actions by Pyongyang. Cuba, by contrast, has not been testing missiles and nuclear devices. 

The U.S. business community has been hampered by the embargo and other restrictions on economic activity with or in Cuba while Latin Americans, Europeans, Russians, and Chinese have been engaged with Cuba. Business communities played an important role in pushing for normalization with Vietnam during the Clinton administration, and the same is true regarding Cuba. But, we have no defined business community in the U.S. that advocates for economic access to North Korea, at least not yet.

Cuban-Americans, although for many decades since the 1960s to late 2000s, were strongly anti-Castro and were/are an important demographic group in U.S. elections, especially in the swing state of Florida, they have transformed over time to support the relaxation of bans on travel, remittances, etc. One reliable university poll finds that in 2014 a large majority — 71% — believe that the U.S. embargo of Cuba has not worked at all or has not worked very well, and 68% of those surveyed support the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba. What’s interesting is that younger generations of Cuban-Americans have moved away from their parents’ and grandparents’ hardline stance against Cuba and have formed moderate views and organizations. The same poll showed that 90 % of the younger generation support normalization. There is no Korean-American organizational activity or voting activity that can pressure Washington to reconcile with the DPRK, and the White House can’t depend on any ethnic Korean bloc to support a controversial move as the one President Obama made today, December 17, 2014. 

Some Republican congressional leaders are very angry about Obama’s action and will fight tooth and nail against the White House’s efforts to improve relations with Cuba. The Senate has to vote on the lifting of the embargo, and a big fight is guaranteed to happen. And members of Congress have been quick to exclaim that the United States should never recognize Cuba until it takes on democratic reforms and improve human rights. Cuba’s record is better relative to North Korea’s, but viewed as deplorable by many in Washington. The bar is much higher for Pyongyang on democratic reform and human rights. 

The Obama administration will have its hands full making today’s declaration of reconciliation and peace become reality through changes in laws and regulations that have kept the U.S. and Cuba far apart in spirit, despite the geographic proximity. It is doubtful that it can take on an even bigger challenge of reconciling with the DPRK. Some members of Congress would don full battle gear in such a case, especially since their blood is boiling with anger over the Mr. Obama’s about-face policy regarding Cuba. And reconciliation and peace with Pyongyang is not a bilateral affair, as it is with Cuba. It is mired in a web of historical, diplomatic, military, and legal complexities involving South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and other countries. For the United States, normalizing relations with Cuba does not change the geopolitical structure of the Americas. Reconciling and normalizing relations with North Korea requires fundamental restructuring of U.S. military, economic, and political interests and assets in East Asia. The Cold War with North Korea will likely continue while the United States’ relations with Cuba undergo a major thaw.