November 24, 2017 / 8:57 PM / 24 days ago

Castro meets North Korea minister amid hope Cuba can defuse tensions

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban President Raul Castro met with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho on Friday amid hopes the Communist-run island might be able to convince its Asian ally to avert a showdown with the United States.

North Korea is facing unprecedented pressure from the United States and the international community to cease its nuclear weapons and missile programs. Cuba has maintained close diplomatic ties with North Korea since 1960 but is opposed to nuclear weapons.

“In the brotherly encounter, both sides commented on the historic friendship between the two nations and talked about international topics of mutual interest,” Cuban state television said on its midday broadcast.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Thursday he had discussed with Castro last year the possibility of working together to defuse global tensions with North Korea.

“Can we pass along messages through surprising conduits?” Trudeau asked in a Q&A session after a speech.

“It was a topic of conversation when I met President Raul Castro last year. These are the kinds of things where Canada can, I think, play a role that the United States has chosen not to play, this past year.”

Canada had an interest in seeking solutions, not just because of regional security but also because the flight path of possible North Korean missiles would pass over its territory, Trudeau said.

North Korea is working on developing nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, aiming to achieve what Ri has called “a real balance of power with the United States”.

Ri met his Cuban counterpart Bruno Rodriguez this week and the ministers denounced U.S. “unilateral and arbitrary lists and designations” that led to “coercive measures contrary to international law”, according to Cuba’s foreign ministry.

The ministers called for “respect for peoples’ sovereignty” and the “peaceful settlement of disputes”, according to a ministry statement.

President Donald Trump has increased pressure on Cuba since taking office, rolling back a detente begun by his predecessor Barack Obama and returning to the hostile rhetoric of the Cold War.

North Korea and Cuba are the last countries in the world to maintain Soviet-style command economies, though under Raul Castro, the Caribbean nation has taken small steps toward the more market-oriented communism of China and Vietnam.

Raul took over the presidency in 2008 from his older brother and revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, who died on Nov. 25 last year. Cuba is marking the anniversary on Saturday with vigils and concerts. [L8N1NS6SF]

Cuba maintains an embassy in North Korea but trades mostly with South Korea. Last year, trade with the latter was $67 million and just $9 million with the North, the government said.

Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Havana; Additional Reporting by Nelson Acosta in Havana, Julie Gordon in Vancouver and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Daniel Flynn and James Dalgleish

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