ELECTIONS IN NORTH KOREA
Elections in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) are held periodically for Korean Workers’ Party (KWP)-approved delegates to the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) and provincial and local people’s assemblies. One hundred percent of the vote for a single candidate is not unusual. Elections were held in 1990, 1998, and 2003. The assemblies meet only for a few days each year to give formal approval to state directives. [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007**]
Elections for North Korea’s leaders: The chief of state and premier are indirectly elected by the Supreme People's Assembly. The last election was held on March 10, 2019. Kim Jong Un was reelected unopposed. The next election is scheduled for March 2024). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]
Legislative elections: The unicameral Supreme People's Assembly (Ch'oego Inmin Hoeui) has 687 seats. Members are directly elected by majority vote (in two rounds if needed) to serve five-year terms. The Korean Workers' Party selects all candidates. Elections were last held on March 10. 2019. next to be held March 2024). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020 =]
Results of the 2019 Legislative Election: Seats by party — Korean Worker’s Party (KWP) — 607; KSDP — 50; Chondoist Chongu Party — 22; General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon) — 5; religious associations 3; ruling party approves a list of candidates who are elected without opposition; composition — men 575, women 112, percent of women 16. 3 percent. KWP, KSDP, Chondoist Chongu Party, and Chongryon are under the KWP's control; a token number of seats reserved for minor parties. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]
The world's most decisive election according to the Guinness Book of Records was an election in North Korea in October 1962 with a 100 percent turn-out and a 100 percent vote for the Workers Party of Korea. In August 2003, the North Korean press reported a 100 percent turn-out and a 100 percent vote for to elect the 11th Supreme People’s Assembly, thus affirming their “unshakable desire” to build a powerful socialist nation. The election was a “manifestation of our army and people’s steadfast will to consolidate the people’s power as a rock and accomplish the revolutionary cause.” Kim Jong Il was among those who won a seat.
North Korea's parliamentary elections are used by Pyongyang to legitimise its rule, but are condemned internationally as a meaningless exercise, says the BBC. Each voting slip has only one state-approved candidate on it. Elections sometimes have symbolic meaning. They are often used to reshape the SPA and often signal upcoming changes North Korea’s constitution and power structure. According to Associated Press: On paper, the Supreme People’s Assembly is an elected bod” that “puts the “D” in the DPRK.” Analysts ofte look to see if the regime replaces “aging legislators with younger, more loyal ones” and “scour the balance of civilian and military officials, party apparatchiks and others for indications of what policies are on the rise. “When officials are not renominated, this points to them falling out of favour,” said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in South Korea. “The sudden appearance of a new person points to the opposite.” [Source: Associated Press, March 9, 2014]
Voting in North Korea
Fyodor Tertitskiy wrote in NK News: “You become a legal adult in North Korea at 17 and immediately receive one of two types of documents – identifying you as either a resident of Pyongyang or not. The type of ID will determine how much freedom of movement you are allowed. Becoming an adult also means one has a duty to vote. Or rather, to go to the polling station, take a ballot with one name on it, bow to the leaders’ portraits and put the ballot in the box. This is voting in North Korea, and there has never been a single vote against the official candidate since 1958. [Source: Fyodor Tertitskiy for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, December 22, 2015]
"Voting" in North Korea is mandatory. It serves as a census because voting is organised by residential unit and provides a way for officials to keep tabs on the public by givng officials a means make sure citizens are living where they are supposed to. The official Korean Central News Agency has stated: “All voters participate as one in the election with revolutionary zeal and consciousness citizens.”
Legal voting age: 17 years of age; universal and compulsory(compared to 16 in Ethiopia and Austria and 25 in United Arab Emirates, most countries are 18) [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]
Associated Press reported: “Official turnout rates in North Korean elections are generally reported at over 99 per cent, a practice inspired by the tradition of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Fictitious as that may sound, Michael Madden, of NK Leadership Watch and 38 North news bulletin, said it reflects one reason the autocratic North has elections at all: They provide “the most comprehensive assessment of the population.”
Elections in North Korea as a Means Monitoring Everyone
According to Associated Press: Mustering the nation every so often is a chance for the authorities to hone their mobilization skills, check up on the efficiency of local leaders and get a snapshot of internal movements. “The DPRK is very good about mobilizing the population for events,” Madden said. He said legislative elections “are celebratory events with various activities. According to various North Korean migrants and defectors, it is very difficult for a voter to get a hardship dispensation from participating.” [Source: Associated Press, March 9, 2014]
“Madden said North Korean security officials will review data on nonvoters to glean information on suspicious activity — since absentees could be workers who have snuck off to China for higher pay, people travelling inside the country without formal permission, or military personnel who have gone AWOL. Officials use the data to conduct further investigations, make arrests and gauge the effectiveness of their social control apparatus at the local level.
Neighbourhood associations, student groups, workplaces and other local authorities see to it that participation is enforced, according to Seo Jae Pyoung, a 45-year-old North Korean defector who now works for a Seoul-based civic group called the Committee for the Democratization of North Korea. Not going to polls would be “unimaginable,” said Seo, who voted in three Supreme People’s Assembly elections before he fled North Korea in 2000. “If we didn’t go to polls, we thought we would become reactionary forces and would be sent to prison camps.”
According to the Telegraph, North Koreans must register one month in advance to participate in the mandatory activity. Defector Mina Yoon said: "the government checks the list of voters and if your name is not on the list, they will investigate it. It is often during [an] election that the government finds out about defectors." She said sometimes defectors in China return to North Korea to register and vote, so that the government won't harm their families in retaliation for defecting. [Source: Danielle Wiener-Bronner, Wired. March 6, 2014]
How Elections Work in North Korea
Voters in North Korea will go to the polls to elect deputies to the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), whose members are chosen every five years. According to The Economist: “Yes, North Korea holds elections. But they are, like a lot of things in North Korea, rather unusual. In fact they are not really elections at all. For one thing, “voters” do not have much choice. They are presented with a single candidate in the district where they live. These candidates are chosen by the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland, the governing coalition, which is controlled by the Workers' Party.
There is only one box to tick. Abstaining or voting no would be a dangerous act of treason, given that voting takes place in booths that do not provide any secrecy, and dissenting votes must be posted into a separate ballot box. In this way the population (everyone over 17 is obliged to vote) endorses the 687 deputies in the SPA, a body that, in any case, is merely a rubber-stamp parliament that is rarely convened. [Source: The Economist, March 5, 2014]
“The whole process highlights an odd thing about sham or rigged elections held in autocratic countries. It seems that even the most despotic leaders (and they do not come much more despotic than Mr Kim) feel the need to pay democracy the back-handed compliment of imitating its outward appearance, if not its underlying political model. North Korea's leaders seem to take their pantomime polls seriously. Mr Kim is standing in constituency number 111, whereas his father stood in number 333; both numbers are said to bring luck. Based on past experience, the Kims tend not to need it.”
Election results are normally announced the following day. The newly elected assembly is expected to convene a few weeks later. [Source: Associated Press, 2014]
Election Campaigns in North Korea
Danielle Wiener-Bronner wrote in Wired: In keeping with North Korean tradition, the state-run media is covering the upcoming elections as if they were a patriotic celebration. The English site for KCNA has posted a number of articles ahead of Sunday's elections which describe festive anticipation. One article, titled "DPRK Seethed with Election Atmosphere," notes that "election atmosphere is gaining momentum in the DPRK with the approach of March 9, a day of election for deputies to the 13th Supreme People's Assembly (SPA)." [Source: Danielle Wiener-Bronner, Wired. March 6, 2014]
“Seen in streets, public places, industrial establishments and co-op farms are "Let us all participate in election of deputies to SPA!", "Let us all consolidate our revolutionary power as firm as a rock!" and other slogans... Meanwhile, agitation activities are going on to encourage citizens to take active part in the election with high political enthusiasm and labor feats, amid the playing of "Song of Election."
“"Going by the Name of Mt. Paektu", "He Is Our Deputy", "Cheers of Korea" and other poems vividly represent the immutable will of all service personnel and people to remain loyal to the Songun revolutionary leadership of Marshal Kim Jong Un. Among the poems are "The Billows of Emotion and Happiness", "We Break into Cheers from the Bottom of Our Heart" and "People's Joy" that represent the great honor and happiness of the citizens of the DPRK having another peerlessly great man at the helm.
North Koreans Vote 'Yes' at the 2014 Elections
During the election in 2014, Associated Press reported: “North Koreans went to polling stations on Sunday to approve a new national legislature. But they don’t get to choose a candidate. The ruling elite have already done that for them, and there’s only one per district. They get to vote “yes” or “no.” Virtually all pick “yes.” The vote for the Supreme People’s Assembly is the first in five years and the first under supreme leader Kim Jong-un. [Source: Associated Press, March 9, 2014]
“The voting was being held in a holiday atmosphere, with national flags hoisted along the streets, women decked out in colourful traditional clothing and dancing events held in parks, schools and riversides. Another thing they don’t get to decide is whether to bother voting. Going to the polls is expected of all eligible voters, which effectively makes North Korean elections a powerful tool for checking up on the people.
For outsiders trying to figure out what’s going on in North Korean politics, Sunday’s elections for the Supreme People’s Assembly may shed some light on what personalities are currently in favour and likely to dominate in the years ahead. For North Korean authorities, the elections provide both a veneer of democracy and a means of monitoring the whereabouts and loyalties of average citizens.
Hyon Byong Chol, the chairman of a preparatory committee for one of the sub-districts in the election, called the vote “meaningful” because it is the first under Kim. “Through this election we will fully display the might of the single-hearted unity of our army and people who are firmly united behind our respected marshal,” he said. Colourful posters urging citizens to go to the polls line the streets in Pyongyang and other cities. Along with nearly 700 other ’deputies“ expected to be seated in the new assembly, Kim himself has announced his candidacy — in District 111 on sacred Mount Paekdu.
Seo Jae Pyoung, a 45-year-old North Korean defector, told Associated Press that when he was in North Korea “everyone voted “yes,” he knows that because there was no privacy. “We went inside the voting booth so closely one after another that we could see where the others had marked their ballots,” he said.
Legislative Elections Under Kim Jong Il
In 2002, Kim Jong Il was re-elected as the chairman of the National Defense Commission — the main leadership position, the equivalency of the president — by a vote of 687-0 by the Supreme People’s Assembly. When the news was announced, the state news agency reported: “The entire Korean people, including servicemen, old men and women and children, are coming out of their houses and working sites and dancing with bunches of flowers in their hands.”
When the results were announced in the Supreme People’s Assembly, all members jumped to their feet and clapped wildly. While Kim Jong Il acknowledged them from a raised platform the members “broke into strong cheers of ‘Hurrah!,’ overwhelmed with emotion, jubilation and ardent reverence.”
Kim Jong Il was unanimously elected to a seat in North Korea's parliament following a 100 per cent turnout in 2009. AFP reported: Elections for the rubber-stamp Supreme People's Assembly featured only one pre-approved candidate in each constituency. But analysts are watching them for clues about an eventual transition of power in the impoverished communist nation. Mr Jong-il, 67, was standing in military constituency 333, a lucky number in Korean. The new assembly will vote later to confirm him as chairman of the National Defence Commission, the country's most powerful body. [Source: AFP, March 9, 2009]
The central election committee said "all the voters of Constituency No 333 participated in the election and voted for Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army Kim Jong-il," the official Korean Central News Agency reported. "This is the expression of all servicepersons' and people's absolute support and profound trust in Kim Jong-il," it added. Voting for the parliament did not take place in 2008 when its five-year term expired, amid speculation over Mr Jong-il's health. He is widely believed to have suffered a stroke last August.”
North Korea Elections Under Kim Jong-un
In 2014, Kim Jong Un "ran" in the SPA elections for a seat in the district of Mount Paektu near the Chinese border. Mount Paektu is an inactive volcano with a crater lake where, according to North Korean mythology, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong Il were born under miraculous conditions. North Korea’s news agency said his selection as a candidate was an expression of “absolute support and profound trust” in his leadership. The elections took place about three months after a stunning purge in which Kim Jong Un had his once-powerful uncle, Jang Song Thaek, long the country’s number two, executed with an anti-aircraft gun. Kim Jong-un won with100 percent of the vote in his Mount Paektu constituency, saying afterwards in an open letter: "I feel grateful for your expression of deep trust in me and extend warm thanks from the bottom of my heart." . [Source: The Economist, March 5, 2014, the BBC]
Kim Jong-un was not on the ballot in the March 2019 election that resulted in the expected landslide win for the Korean Worker’s Party and his authoritarian leadership. It was the first time a North Korean leader had not run for its rubberstamp parliament. The BBC reported: The vote did see his sister, Kim Yo-jong, elected to the body, however. The leader's younger sibling has been gradually moving into a more influential role. [Source: BBC, 12 March 2019]
“State media announced the names of the 687 deputies elected to the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) but Mr Kim's name was not read out. Rachel Minyoung Lee, an analyst with North Korea specialist website NK News, told the BBC that his absence from the list does not suggest a weakening grip on power. "This could be part of North Korea's ongoing effort to be perceived as a 'normal state'," she said. "And in most democratic countries, the president doesn't concurrently have a seat in the parliament." The North's official news agency KCNA said on that this year's turnout was 99.99 percent, as those "abroad or working in oceans" were unable to participate.
Local Elections in North Korea
Regional elections are held every four years at the city, county and provincial levels to appoint candidates to local people's assemblies. Local elections in North Korea are not competitive, because all candidates are elected by the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland, which is led by the Workers' Party of North Korea. The public is encouraged to vote “yes” during the polls to legitimize the regime’s political appointments. [Source: Radio Free Asia, July 20, 2015]
According to the BBC: Local elections have been held in North Korea since 1999. The election in July 2015 decided provincial governors, mayors and local assemblies. The number of seats is determined by each district's population. In the second provincial elections in 2003, one report said 26,650 "officials, workers, peasants and intellectuals" were elected. [Source: BBC, July 19, 2015]
“The choice is limited — there is only one candidate on the ballot in each district, and while the selection of candidates is made by the governing coalition, they are closely overseen by Kim Jong-un's Workers' Party. Ahead of last year's elections to name deputies for the country's assembly, The Economist reported that voting did not take place in secret, and any dissenting votes must be placed in a separate ballot box. Abstaining or voting no are considered acts of treason.
“In the last local election, in 2011, there was a turnout of 99.7 percent, with the state news agency saying those unable to vote were abroad or on the high seas. Having such a high reported turnout has its advantages for the state, observers say, in that it acts as an informal census. "The government checks the list of voters and if your name is not on the list, they will investigate it", one North Korean defector told the NK News website. "It is often during election that the government finds out about defectors and people who have been missed." If the state works out you did not vote, NK News says, "you and your family are in trouble".
North Korea Praises Trump Before 2016 U.S. Election and Condemns 'Dull Hillary'
In 2016, when primaries in the U.S. were in full swing, North Korean state media praised U.S. presidential candidate at the time, Donald Trump, describing him as a “wise politician” and “far-sighted candidate” who could help unify the Korean peninsula. JH Ahn wrote in NK News: An editorial in DPRK Today, an official media outlet, welcomed the Republican presidential candidate’s proposal to hold direct talks with Kim Jong-un, saying he could help bring about Pyongyang’s “Yankee go home” policy. “There are many positive aspects to Trump’s ‘inflammatory policies’,” wrote Han Yong-mook, who described himself as a Chinese North Korean scholar. Trump said he will not get involved in the war between the South and the North, isn’t this fortunate from North Korea’ perspective?”[Source: JH Ahn, NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, May 31, 2016]
Analysts said that although the editorial was not officially from Pyongyang, it was sure to reflect thinking inside the regime. “This is very striking,” said Aidan Foster-Carter of the University of Leeds. “Admittedly it is not exactly Pyongyang speaking, or at least not the DPRK government in an official capacity. But it is certainly Pyongyang flying a kite, or testing the waters. “For the rest of us, this is a timely reminder – if it were needed – of just how completely Trump plans to tear up established US policy in the region.”
“The editorial referred to Trump’s speech in March, in which he suggested he would withdraw US military forces from Seoul if South Korea did not increase spending on defense. “Yes do it, now … Who knew that the slogan ‘Yankee Go Home’ would come true like this? The day when the ‘Yankee Go Home’ slogan becomes real would be the day of Korean Unification.”
The article urged Seoul not to increase defense spending so as to prompt a US withdrawal, and urged American voters not to choose the Democratic hopeful, Hillary Clinton. “The president that US citizens must vote for is not that dull Hillary – who claimed to adapt the Iranian model to resolve nuclear issues on the Korean Peninsula – but Trump, who spoke of holding direct conversation with North Korea.” John Feffer, director of Foreign Policy In Focus, said the editorial indicated Pyongyang’s wish to break through Washington’s strategic patience policy.
“[Trump]’s the Dennis Rodman of American politics — quirky, flamboyant, risk-taking. At the moment he’s also an outsider. But Pyongyang is hoping that either he’ll be elected [and follow through on his pledges] or that his pronouncements will change the pothe U.S. and influence how the Democratic party and mainstream Republicans view Korean issues.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021