Why North Korea Can’t Be the Next Cuba
Image Credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Why North Korea Can’t Be the Next Cuba


After more than half a century of isolation, Cuba raised its flag and opened its six-story embassy in Washington D.C. The restored diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba follows an announcement made by U.S. President Barack Obama back in December 2014. In his speech, Obama admitted that “these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked.” In light of his admission of the ineffectiveness of U.S. policy, Obama has initiated a shift aimed at moving away from a sanctions-based attempt to isolate Cuba and toward a policy that fosters engagement through normalized relations. This revamp of policy has entailed not only the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, but also the removal of Cuba from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism and the authorization of increased travel, commerce, and flow of information to and from Cuba.

That raises a question: How much precedent will this shift set for U.S. policy going forward?  Improving relations with Cuba and the Iran nuclear deal suggests the United States could also consider turning the page with North Korea. After all, one could easily make the case that 50 years of isolation for North Korea has not worked either. And on the surface, a comparison of Cuba and North Korea would seem to hold merit as both countries share similar histories, at least in their relations with the United States. But a deeper analysis shows that while the United States did maintain a consistent foreign policy towards these two countries for half a century, the similarities very quickly end.

Parallel States

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An initial comparison of Cuba and North Korea shows much in common. Having been influenced by the former Soviet Union, both countries remain one-party communist states governed by dictatorships that have successfully completed family successions. For Cuba, the country went through a successful transition in 2006 when Fidel Castro transferred power to his brother Raul Castro. In North Korea, an unprecedented third generation took over when Kim Jong-un became the Supreme Leader after the death of his father Kim Jong-il in December of 2011.

Perhaps the most widely recognized parallel between the two countries is their record of human rights abuses. Because both countries are totalitarian regimes, the government of Cuba has historically detained, imprisoned, and convicted any citizen for expressing any conflicting political or religious views. Cuba also limits the freedom of religion and the right to assemble, and controls any form of print or electric media. Likewise, North Korea has been criticized by the international community for its forced labor camps – also known as gulags – which house political prisoners.

A History of Sanctions

Consequently, the United States has maintained hard economic sanctions on both countries for the past half century. Until the past decade, both Cuba and North Korea were listed as state sponsors of terrorism. North Korea was added to the list in 1988 for its involvement in the selling of weapons to terrorist groups and numerous bombings. It was subsequently removed under the Bush Administration in 2008. Meanwhile, Cuba had a longer tenure on the list, having been added in 1981 and removed only this past April.

Being on the list in itself means export controls and denial of beneficial trade designations such as Normal Trade Relations (NTR) or Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). In addition, the United States and its allies have placed sanctions on North Korea that deny travel and freeze the assets of certain individuals and organizations within the regime. The economic sanctions also entail a long list of items – equipment, materials, technology, and luxury items – banned from any form of trade.

Even after Obama’s change in policy, Cuba continues to face an economic embargo, which is codified into law through the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996. It would take an act of Congress to either repeal or amend the law.

The Issue of Nuclear Weapons

Despite the similarities between Cuba and North Korea and the parallels in U.S. foreign policy towards them, the countries diverge on one critical issue: nuclear weapons.

While both countries have made attempts to obtain nuclear weapons, Cuba and North Korea took dramatically different paths.  In 1961, Cuba entered into an agreement with the Soviet Union to place Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. This eventually led to a U.S. naval blockade of Cuba and the well known Cuban Missile Crisis. Cuba has not had a run-in with nuclear weapons since.

In contrast, instead of asking for Soviet missiles as Cuba had done, North Korea sought help in developing its own nuclear weapons. When the Soviet Union refused to provide that help, North Korea turned to its “big brother” China, only to be rejected once more. Ultimately, Pyongyang began its nuclear weapons program in the 1980s and carried out its first nuclear weapons test in 2006. North Korea acknowledged having nuclear weapons in 2007.

Despite Cuba’s geographic proximity to the United States, it poses far less of a security threat than North Korea does. While the Pacific Ocean may separate the United States and the comparatively small country on the Korean peninsula, the fact that North Korea possesses nuclear weapons changes the policy landscape entirely. Moreover, North Korea has been actively developing a long-range inter-continental ballistic missile, which could reach the western shores of the United States.

The Korean Peninsula

A full consideration of policy towards North Korea cannot be made without factoring in the role of its existential rival South Korea. While North Korea is continuing work on its inter-continental ballistic missile, its current nuclear arsenal already poses a direct threat to South Korea. Not only has South Korea been an American ally since the end of the World War II, but in recent decades, South Korea’s role has become much broader than simply deterring North Korea. As a result of its economic and democratic transformation and its emergence as a middle power, South Korea has become a crucial part of the overall U.S. rebalance to Asia. Therefore, any impending threat to South Korea is a threat to U.S. strategy itself. Cuba, on the other hand, has no such rivalry with any major allies of the United States to be considered.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, the issue of nuclear weapons becomes the tipping point for divergent policies. It serves as the primary reason why North Korea has not received the same reconsideration that Cuba has. Next to China, North Korea poses the greatest threat to the overall U.S. strategy for Asia.

Given that half a century of isolation has not persuaded Cuba to change its ways, the United States has very little to lose by revamping its policy and reestablishing its relations. Meanwhile, North Korea remains a significant threat. A change in U.S. policy that allows for expanded commerce and a release of assets could inadvertently supplement North Korea’s military agenda and foster an even greater security threat to the United States. And that is a risk the United States is simply not willing to take.

Sam Cho works for a member of the United States Congress where he manages the foreign affairs, trade, and defense portfolio. Previously, he worked at the U.S. Department of State as an analyst and for the Economic Section of the Embassy of the Republic of Korea on the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. Heholds an MSc International Political Economy from The London School of Economics (LSE) and B.A. in International Studies from American University.

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