07 April 2008

Kim Jong il Visits Unit 776... Again

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il made two visits to military sites in recent days, stopping by a company of KPA Unit 350 on April 5 and visiting a recruit training subunit of KPA Unit 776 on April 6. These are Kim's first public appearances in nearly a month, and the first time Kim has visited a military facility since mid-February.

South Korean media is highlighting the visit both because it is Kim's first appearance in a month, and because it comes amid heightened political tensions between the North and South. In addition to finally opening the taps on the vitriolic rhetoric condemning South Korea’s new president Lee Myung Bak, North Korea has also revived the threats of turning Seoul to ash (apparently an evolution from the old "Sea of Fire" warning), flown sorties with its old MiG 21s, and started posturing in the East Sea (both warning of naval clashes and testing surface to ship missiles).

But there is another element of the visit that still has me wondering. What is with all the visits to Unit 776? Normally, North Korean media simply mixes up the numbers – and there is not necessarily a clear correlation between the number printed in the media and any real unit number. But Kim has visited some element of Unit 776 now in December 2007, January, February and now April – four visits to the same unit designation. As I noted back in February, Kim’s visits to 776 may have something to do with Jagang Province (where North Korea’s suspected Uranium enrichment facility is located).

With a deal between Washington and Pyongyang in the final stages of negotiation on North Korea's listing of nuclear facilities, perhaps Kim is making sure things are cleaned up and ready up north for inspection after listing.

Or maybe it has nothing to do with the nuclear facilities at all. But the repetition of unit 776 does not seem to me to be a random event.

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