South Korea and Cuba held their first foreign ministerial talks in Havana Sunday, breaking a decades-long absence of formal diplomatic exchanges between the two sides.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se arrived in the Cuban capital a day earlier to attend a summit of the Association of Caribbean States. But the focus of his two-day stay was widely expected to be on relations between South Korea and Cuba, which have yet to establish formal diplomatic ties. Yun is the first South Korean foreign minister to visit Cuba.
At the Palacio de Convenciones, the South Korean minister met with his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez, behind closed doors for what was scheduled to be a 30-minute meeting. The talks lasted an hour and 15 minutes.
"For an exceptionally long 75 minutes, our talks were very friendly, serious and candid," Yun told South Korean reporters after the meeting. "We had a broad exchange of views on bilateral, regional and global issues."
The minister stopped short of mentioning a normalization of ties, but he was optimistic about the future.
"I expect there to be follow-up talks at various levels under a vision for the future," he said. "Our government plans to put in a lot of effort with that vision and an improvement in bilateral ties in mind."
Cuba formally recognized South Korea in 1949, shortly after its independence from Japanese colonial rule, but their bilateral relations had effectively been cut off since Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959. The country has formed a close alliance with communist North Korea.
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. South Korean officials, however, have guarded against such optimism, noting the strength of the Cuba-North Korea alliance that began with the establishment of bilateral diplomatic ties in 1960.
Yun's visit to Havana came as South Korea has been forging stronger ties with countries that have traditionally had close relations with North Korea, such as Uganda and Iran.
"I stressed the point that even though our bilateral ties are developing smoothly in various fields, it is time to focus more on the potential our two countries have," Seoul's top diplomat said.
"I delivered the various thoughts we have in order to go in that direction."
He added that he felt a closeness developing between the two sides in the courtesy shown by the Cuban government during his attendance at the ACS summit and the extra time set aside for the talks.
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.
Yun told Rodriguez that South Korea is actively studying ways to contribute to Cuba's efforts to tackle the harmful effects of climate change on the region, according to a statement released by Seoul's foreign ministry.
Rodriguez thanked Yun for his comments, saying he has high expectations of working with South Korea on the issues of climate change and sustainable development, some of the top items on this year's summit agenda.
Before wrapping up his trip, Yun met with ethnic Koreans in Cuba at a culture center set up in 2014 with the South Korean government's help.
According to the ministry, there are currently 1,104 ethnic Koreans who have descended from the first generation of Korean migrants who moved from Mexico to Cuba in 1921 to work in sugar cane fields.
This year marks 95 years since the first Korean migrants settled in Cuba.
Yun encouraged the leaders of the ethnic Korean community and spoke highly of the contributions their forefathers made to Korea's struggle for independence from Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule. He also lauded the Korean community's efforts to preserve their ethnic identity.
Among the attendees was the son of the first Korean community leader, Lim Cheon-taik, who had raised funds for his country's independence movement and fought for the rights of his compatriots in Cuba.
The South Korean government conferred an order on Lim in 1997 and buried his remains at a national cemetery in 2004. (Yonhap)