In recent weeks, in response to US-ROK military exercises, Pyongyang has revived the “Commentator,” a format that once appeared from time to time in the party organ Rodong Sinmun and was traditionally used to convey authoritative positions within the highest ranks of the Workers’ Party. Prior to the two most recent “Commentator” articles (March 17 and March 28), the last one published was in May 2017. The return of the Commentator now—and most unusually, with two appearing in less than two weeks on the same subject—deserves careful attention.
The “Commentator” should not be confused with routine Rodong Sinmun commentaries or articles. Its pedigree can be traced to old-line communist media practice, similar to what used to be identified during the Soviet Union era as Pravda “Observer” and, in Renmin Ribao as “Commentator.” These were important statements of the parties’ positions on what were considered to be serious issues. The intended audience varied, sometimes external, sometimes internal.
In the case of North Korea, “Commentator” articles were often used at the point of key leadership decisions to advance an argument or, in some cases, to oppose a position. They were typically lengthy, well written, and logical. The two most recent “Commentator” articles appearing in Rodong Sinmun are relatively short and punchy, though the second of the two is noticeably longer than the first. Both received extensive coverage on North Korean television, with still photos of US aircraft, ships, and soldiers underscoring points in the text read by the announcer.
If—and we emphasize “if”—the “Commentator” is again being used along traditional lines to convey authoritative-level party views, and possibly as part of an internal policy discussion, it’s probably a mistake to jump in too soon with textual exegesis and analytical hypotheses but worth watching closely.