Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News.
In our enlightened age, democracy is, by and large, a universal value.
As a result, most dictators pretend to be democratically elected. Every couple of years or so, a sham election is held and the Great One is reelected for their next term – supposedly because the tyrant is just that popular.
However, even this smidgen of democracy occasionally leads to unforeseen consequences.
An autocrat is already all-powerful, but when he faces elections he essentially gambles with fate. This is by no means a fair game – it’s all heavily rigged in his favor, but still, there is a chance he could lose – something an unelected autocrat (like the Saudi king, for example) doesn’t have to worry about.
Normally change happens when a dictator is lacking popularity with both the people and the elite. A good example is Chile in 1988.
That country’s dictator, Captain-General Augusto Pinochet, announced a referendum on his new term. No one else could run, with people only choosing between a vote for or against the sitting president.
The majority went to the polls and voted ‘no.’ Before the Government Junta could start its emergency meeting, one of its members – General of the Air Force Fernando Matthei – acknowledged in a short interview to a journalist that the result was clear and the President had lost. This marked the end of Pinochet.
Both the supreme positions Kim Jong Un holds – Chairmanship of the Party and of the State Affairs Commission – are formally electable. But it would not be an exaggeration to say that North Korea is the least democratic of all the countries in which a head of state is formally elected.
In this article, I will show how the rules for North Korean elections reflect the leadership’s paranoia and fear of losing power, even when everything is under control.
In the Kim Il Sung era, the rules, which the North had copied from the USSR, were simple. A Party meeting – a Congress or a Conference – “elected” the Central Committee. They would vote in support of a list of candidates endorsed by Kim Il Sung – and, before that, by the Soviets — with only a few dissenting votes allowed in the 1940s and 1950s, and none from then on.The resulting Central Committee then voted to elect the Chairman.
There was naturally only one candidate — Kim Il Sung — and he was elected unanimously.
There was a loophole in the system, however. The Central Committee was not some huge body – it had merely a few dozen members, most of which belonged to the political elite. Theoretically, if more than half agreed to do so, they could have voted Kim out of office — as readers may know, this is what his opposition hoped for in 1956.
This system lasted throughout Kim Il Sung’s rule. It survived 1966 when the position of Chairman of the Central Committee was renamed to General Secretary, and two subsequent Congresses.
Yet – and this went largely unnoticed – the system was changed when Kim Jong Il came to power.
CHANGING THE RULES
Kim Jong Il became Supreme Leader at a time of great crisis for the country. The economy was collapsing, and the country was left without allies after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and relations with China were strained after having opened an embassy in Seoul.
For more than three years after Kim Il Sung died, his son was content not to assume any other positions and simply ruled the Party and the state as Kim Il Sung’s heir. Yet in 1997, Kim Jong Il moved to formally assume leadership of the Party.
Après nous, le déluge has been the unofficial motto of the DPRK’s ruling clan
The procedure he used was not outlined in the Party Constitution of 1980. Instead of being elected by the Central Committee, Kim Jong Il started from the lower level.
First, Party organizations in the Army, regional, and central governing institutions held conferences, each of them adopting a resolution called “On the election of the Great Leader of our Party and the people – comrade Kim Jong Il – as the General Secretary of our Party.”
Next, based on the said resolution, the Party’s Central Committee and the Central Military Commission proclaimed Kim Jong Il to be General Secretary in October 1997.
To observers, this was all rather odd. But what happened next was more interesting.
The rules were changed from the Third Party Conference of 2010. First, the Central Committee was stripped of the authority to appoint and dismiss the General Secretary. The General Secretary was now to be elected directly by the Congress or the Conference.
Kim Jong Il was not actually the first communist leader to invent such a system. In its later years, the Romanian Communist Party elected the General Secretary directly at a Congress.
Soviet diplomats at the time noticed the change and concluded that Nikolae Ceaușescu had become completely paranoid, fearing that the Central Committee may have otherwise dismissed him.
Kim Jong Il, however, went further than just changing the procedure.
Instead of putting items like “elections of the General Secretary” in the Conference agenda, the 2010 meeting was to formally discuss the issue entitled “On the aloft election of the Great Leader of our Party and the people – comrade Kim Jong Il – as the General Secretary of our Party without any change.” Even the slightest possibility of anyone using the Conference to turn the table against Kim Jong Il was to be nullified.
Kim Jong Un inherited his father’s system, and so the Fourth Conference of 2012 saw the “Election of the Respected and beloved comrade Kim Jong Un to the supreme position of our Party in accordance with the will of the Great Leader comrade Kim Jong Il,” as did the Seventh Congress of 2016 with the “Aloft election of the Respected and beloved comrade Kim Jong Un to the supreme position of our Party.”
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR KIM JONG UN
First of all, this tinkering with the procedure is a good testimony to Kim Jong Il’s paranoia — he did his best to assure that his power could not be threatened even theoretically.
But the current situation does not mean that Kim Jong Un’s position is more secure than it would have been otherwise. He is not safe from a coup or an assassination attempt, as bullets do not care about voting procedure.
Moreover, should they wish to do so, elites could still unite against him through the Central Committee. Kim Jong Il disregarded the regulations to become General Secretary in 1997, and the elite can do the same.
Just pass a resolution accusing Kim Jong Un of grave crimes — real, such as terror, failures in foreign policy, or lack of economic progress – or imaginary, such as being an MI6 agent since 1984 or poisoning Kim Il Sung in 1994 and Kim Jong Il in 2011.
It all ultimately comes down to who the people with the guns listen to. If they obey a rebellious Central Committee, no title or procedure will save Kim.
There’s a somewhat similar precedent of procedure not having much effect. There’s the above-mentioned fate of Ceaușescu, but also what happened rather recently to one of North Korea’s top men, Hwang Pyong So.
Kim Jong Un had him ejected from the top elite. Hwang managed to formally remain a Vice-Chairman of the State Affairs Commission for a few months, but was voted from this office in the next session of the Supreme People’s Assembly. His theoretical immunity from the decisions of anyone except the SPA did not save him.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that North Korea is the least democratic of all the countries in which a head of state is formally elected
There is a situation where the rules could matter, however. If Kim Jong Un dies without an heir, the current system may lead to bloodshed in the battle for the country’s top position.
But if his successor was actually elected by the Central Committee, there would be more of a chance that North Korea’s elite could just follow whoever received a majority of the vote.
It’s very unlikely that the elite would trust, say, the Party Conference to vote in such a dramatic scenario. This wouldn’t be too different from actually dismantling the existing system and starting a democratic transition.
What would be more likely is that such a Conference would be supposed to endorse the Central Committee’s ‘recommendation’ as Kim Jong Un’s heir. But there would still be room for instability, or bloodshed, even in this case, since no decision on the leadership would be final before the process had been completed.
Given that après nous, le déluge has long been the unofficial motto of the DPRK’s ruling clan though, this would be quite fitting.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News. In our enlightened age, democracy is, by and large, a universal value. As a result, most dictators pretend to be democratically elected. Every couple of years or so, a sham election is held and the Great One is reelected for their next term – supposedly because the tyrant
Fyodor Tertitskiy is an expert in North Korean politics and the military and a contributor to NK News and NK Pro. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Seoul National University, and is author of "North Korea before Kim Il Sung," which you buy here.