If you’re a North Korean citizen trying to make an (underground) living in China, there’s one event that will certainly bring you back home: election day in the DRPK, when many flood back into the country to have their votes counted whenever they are called.
Why? According to defector Mina Yoon, who left North Korea in 2011, elections function mainly as a means for the state to keep track of its population’s whereabouts and to keep track of defectors.
“The government checks the list of voters and if your name is not on the list, they will investigate it”, she told NK News. “It is often during election that the government finds out about defectors and people who have been missed”.
Since the collapse of the state’s public distribution system during the famine of the mid-1990s, Yoon said, old ways of keeping track of citizens no longer work. While before citizens’ movements were monitored and reported on by the head of their local inminban (North Korea’s official neighborhood busybodies, who keep watch over their communities), now “people move to other areas to do businesses without pass, there is no way for the head to check them”.
However, when election day rolls around, everything changes: “Since people have to register one month before the election starts, those who left town for the business should come back”, Yoon said.
If the state realises you did not turn up to vote, you and your family are in trouble.
“Defectors in China come back to North Korea risking their lives because they are afraid of possible damages to their family or loved ones left in North Korea when the government figures out that they are missing”, Yoon said.
“If the state realises you did not turn up to vote, you and your family are in trouble”
Many, she said, return to China after the election and will come back yet again for the next election, saying, “Those who got used to the life in China, which is better than the one in North Korea, they tend to escape again”.
Yoon, who participated in elections in North Korea, told NK News that most people aren’t even aware of who their local candidate is, but are obligated vote or “there will be consequences such as being politically criticized or restricted”.
North Koreans also vote to be perceived as loyal citizens, pointing out that “they will be considered as rebellions otherwise. People tend to be more cautious about their behavior during election because when you’re caught on any kind of illegal activity during an election, there will be additional punishment”.
A STACKED DECK
Only one candidate may appear on the ballot in North Korean elections: the candidate endorsed by the local branch of the Workers’ Party at mass meetings across the country. It is indeed possible for voters to vote “no”, crossing out a candidates name on the ballot paper. But this act of defiance is unthinkable, requiring the voter to go a special booth to cross out the name. Since, as Yoon said, elections are when North Koreans monitor each other the closest and are tested for their loyalty, not endorsing the official candidate makes you a prime candidate for a concentration camp.
To understand how, and why North Korea votes, one must understand how the North Korean political system functions and the structure of its leadership.
“Many people don’t know that North Korea actually has three other political factions sitting in its legislature”
While it is often said that the Workers’ Party of Korea is the only party in North Korea’s one-party state, many people don’t know that North Korea actually has three other political factions sitting in its legislature, all making up the ruling “Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland”.
The first is the Korean Social Democratic Party, founded in 1945, “out of the masses’ anti-imperialist, anti-feudal aspirations and demands to eliminate the aftermath of the Japanese imperialist military rule and build a new democratic society” – it boasts 50 seats in the Supreme Assembly.
The second is the Chondoist Chongu Party, which holds 22 seats, and is a faction representing followers of the Cheondoist religious sect – an unusual synthesis of Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian thought with roots in 19th century and Korea’s peasantry. An article on the Naenara website, an information service run by the North Korea government, said its goal is to “establish harmony among all members of society”.
Another faction with seats in the Supreme Assembly is the mysterious General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, a strange group based in Tokyo with strong connections with the DPRK, even serving as the country’s de facto embassy for Japan. Five officials of the organisation sit in the Supreme Assembly.
How much power does the North Korean Supreme Assembly actually have? Not much. While it is North Korea’s primary legislative body, it largely delegated power to the much more influential Presidium, the highest organ of power in North Korea. The Presidium is designed to take legislative responsibility when the Supreme People’s Assembly is not in session – which is almost every day of the year.
Andrei Lankov, a professor of Asian Studies at Kookmin University, tells NK News that elections in the DPRK are largely the product of an electoral system transplanted from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, with the North Korean system being close to identical to the system introduced in the USSR: one candidate per ballot, endorsed by a coalition of the Communist Party and subservient “non-party” members.
As in North Korea, Lankov said, the authorities “claimed improbably high levels of participation (always above 99 percent), as well as improbably high levels of approval for official candidates (99.8 percent in 1984 Supreme Soviet election, for example)”.
“The North Korean electoral system was copied from the Soviet Union”, he continues, “but some comic (or rather tragicomic) features of the Soviet system were taken to extremes. After the 1957 elections North Korea made the system still more peculiar: they began to claim 100 percent participation rates and 100 percent approval rates. People used to joke that on the day of elections that no one would dare to die in North Korea, let alone lose consciousness”.
THE BIG DAY
A North Korean election day itself has a strict itinerary. Eligible voters are herded along to their local polling station by the head of their inminban, which has a list of all those registered in the district.
The voters then arrive in voting booths, with posters saying, “let’s all vote for the candidate”, and watched over by portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Next, Lankov said, “Voters pay a deep bow to the latter (this is of course obligatory), and then they take a ballot (every ballot has only one name of course)”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, elections in North Korea are not seen as an opportunity for the populace to express their views, and North Koreans know next to nothing about what they actually mean.
“Elections in North Korea are not seen as an opportunity for the populace to express their views”
“The North does not teach students about the importance of the election when they were in the middle school or high school”, defector Jihoon Park told NK News. “Therefore, we can say North Korean people have no idea about the right to vote”.
With the absence of liberal conceptions of how an election works, elections in North Korea seem much more an opportunity for the regime to flex its patriotic muscles, with Yoon describing elections rallies as “propaganda advertisement”. “The government”, she said “makes people gather at a plaza and shout slogans such as ‘let’s drive out U.S. armies from South Korea’”.
While it’s impossible to know what North Koreans think while they’re in the voting booth, it’s likely that they see it either a great patriotic duty or just another mundane duty among the endless duties required of them by the state.
To outside observers, the idea of a North Korean election is nothing short of bizarre. But on January 9, 2009, the Supreme People’s Assembly – the highest legislative body of the North Korean state – was dissolved, and elections to choose its lawmakers were called.
Election day came on March 8, with newspapers full of editorials compelling the people of North Korea to vote. State news agency KCNA implored North Koreans to “participate in the election of deputies as one and vote for the candidates”, remarking that voter participation would mean “the government of the DPRK will grow remarkably stronger”.
The votes were counted the next day, with turnout at 99.98 percent – and the Workers’ Party won by a landslide, winning 606 of the 687 seats, and all of the seats in the parliament going to members of the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland, the electoral coalition which props up the government. In district 333, where the late Kim Jong Il ran, the Dear Leader was unanimously re-elected.
“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”, KCNA reported, saying that “this is the expression of all servicepersons’ and people’s absolute support and profound trust in Kim Jong Il”.
There’s an election this year, too, on March 9, and leader of the country Kim Jong Un will stand for parliament, for the Mount Paektu constituency (the ‘divine’ mountain where his father is said to have been born). Judging from past experience, it is safe to assume that, once again, the Workers’ Party will win by a landslide.
Main picture: Eric Lafforgue