SEOUL - A Cuban government delegation has arrived in South Korea for the first time in more than half a century, officials said Tuesday, as the communist island moves towards a market economy.
The four-member group were the first Cuban government representatives to visit the capitalist South since Seoul cut ties with Havana after the 1959 Cuban revolution, said Seoul's foreign ministry.
Cuba set up diplomatic ties with communist North Korea the following year and has since then remained a close ally of Pyongyang.
The delegation, headed by Noel Vazquez Perez, a director general in Cuba's Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment, arrived Monday for a five-day visit, the foreign ministry said.
"The Cuban delegation is an economic party and they are here only to discuss trade," said foreign ministry spokesman Cho Byung-Je, cautioning against reading political or other motives into the visit.
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro visited the North in 1986 to meet then-leader Kim Il-Sung, and Havana signed a free trade agreement with Pyongyang in 1997.
But under Fidel's brother Raul, Cuba has been shifting away from a command economy and expanding non-state sectors.
It has encouraged small private businesses, eliminated subsidies and cut the size of Cuba's massive bureaucracy. Cubans for the first time in a half-century have been allowed privately to buy and sell their homes and cars.
Chosun Ilbo newspaper on Monday quoted a foreign ministry official as saying Cuba now wants to establish direct trade channels with South Korea and expand imports.
It has been importing car parts and electrical generators from South Korea through intermediaries or indirect routes.