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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
Officials from the top two departments under North Korea’s ruling-party Central Committee were reported on Thursday to have met with a high-profile army unit earlier this week, representing a rare format and presentation for such a visit.
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that the officials “paid a congratulatory visit” on Tuesday to the artillery battalion of the 3rd Corps of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), which won last week’s artillery competition overseen by DPRK leader Kim Jong Un.
Coverage of the visit focused heavily on Kim’s “immortal congratulatory autograph” signed at the conclusion of the competition.
It also showed soldiers and their families — all seen wearing masks amid ongoing state-mandated COVID-19 measures — receiving “aid materials” from the officials such as recreational equipment and some daily necessities.
The top departments were named as “the Organizational Leadership Department and the Information and Publicity Department of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK),” more commonly known in English as the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) and the Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD).
Under Kim Jong Un, the OGD and PAD have not previously been singled out as top-line visiting parties to such units in the field, making Thursday’s report a rarity and raising questions as to the purpose of its presentation in state media.
“It is highly unusual for state media to report on officials of specific party departments independently carrying out an activity, without Kim Jong Un,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst with NK News’s sister site NK Pro.
Lee mentioned that senior party officials sometimes do carry out independent activities, but that those cases are different in that “they are high-level party officials, not officials representing specific departments.”
It is unclear whether such a format will become commonplace, she added, adding that it could serve as a “way to underscore the leadership of the party and party officials, a key theme in Kim Jong Un’s party plenum speech and the recent Political Bureau meeting.”
“This unusual visit may also foreshadow an even stronger OGD and PAD going forward; if so, it would be interesting to see how this affects the roles and responsibilities of Jo Yong Won and Kim Yo Jong.”
No individual officials from the influential departments were identified in Thursday’s KCNA report, but NK News has identified the only official shown without a mask in the images as PAD first vice director Ri Yong Sik.
Ri was “appointed” to the position, one level below the director, in the late-December party plenum alongside Kim Jong Un’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong, though both were already believed to hold the same title in the PAD.
Another unusual aspect of the visit is that typically, when top party officials of the most influential departments were featured in the news delivering gifts and holding meetings with citizens, they are presented as gifts or aid directly from Kim Jong Un.
Some recent examples include top official Pak Pong Ju leading a celebratory event presenting gifts from Kim to the newly-opened Yangdok Hot Springs and Ski Resort in December, and Pak Thae Song similarly offering Kim’s gifts to the Samjiyon City People’s Hospital last month.
Martin Weiser, a researcher focusing on North Korean open-source data, told NK News that gift-giving by the party is presented frequently in state media in other ways as well, such as an image in the cabinet newspaper Minju Choson also on Thursday showing new gift arrivals at a local party committee from an unnamed source.
In the case of the 3rd Corps, however, the gifts were specifically said to have been “sincerely prepared” by the OGD and PAD cadres.
Weiser also told NK News he believes the visit and provision of aid was likely related to the ongoing restrictive COVID-19 policies, though state media did not make any mention of the virus.
“I assume troops have been on lockdown because of the virus and those gifts are meant to increase troop morale,” he said.
But while the gifts presented to the soldiers this week by Ri and at least one other cadre representing the PAD and OGD were not said to be from the country’s leader, the officials did deliver Kim Jong Un’s personal greetings.
“The soldiers of the unit warmly greeted the officials who visited the unit with the great love of the Supreme Leader who is always thoughtful of the master gunners on the western front,” Thursday’s KCNA report said.
The primary focus of the article in the beginning was also to highlight the autographed certificate that was featured heavily in state media coverage of the March 20 artillery competition.
“The soldiers put on display the master gunner certificate bearing the congratulatory autograph of the Supreme Leader in the battalion headquarters and the companies,” KCNA reported.
“Looking at the immortal congratulatory autograph with deep emotion, the soldiers expressed deep gratitude for Kim Jong Un who made the highest appreciation of the success made by the battalion in the competition and showed the battalion paternal love one after another.”
The cadres also read “encouraging letters” from unspecified parties out loud to the soldiers and commanding officers, and asked them to continue to carry out the “training-first policy (훈련제일주의방침) of the Party.”
This policy focusing on military readiness was frequently mentioned in state media in 2016-2017 but disappeared for all of 2018, according to KCNA Watch archives, when the country was attempting to negotiate better relations with the U.S. and South Korea.
It was mentioned occasionally in 2019 in various state media reports, but only returned in the context of a Kim Jong Un appearance for the recent March 12 artillery exercises.
In last Friday’s artillery drills, the DPRK leader reportedly provided instructions for “intensifying the drills of all the KPA units, as required by the prevailing situation” — suggesting more drills will be carried out in the coming weeks, possibly providing more opportunities for party department cadre visits.
Edited by Oliver Hotham