How the North is run: the Supreme People’s Assembly
The SPA is de jure the DPRK's most powerful institution, but has no actual say in state policy
This is part of a larger series examining some of North Korea’s key state institutions. The series has also covered the State Affairs Commission, the Central Military Commission, as well as the Politburo and the Central Committee.
One of North Korea’s most contradictory organizations is its parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA). In theory, it is the country’s most powerful organ, with the Constitution giving it the power to dismiss the leader with a single vote of non-confidence. In practice, however, it is completely powerless: it exists to endorse the Party’s decisions – always unanimously and without debate. This analysis is dedicated to the past, present and potential future of this organ.
Prototype: the Supreme Soviet
To understand the SPA, we must first examine its origins in the Russian Revolution. After the fall of the Tsar, politically active workers and soldiers from the former Imperial Army began to organize councils of representatives, better known by their Russian name as “Soviets” (совѣты). The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, proclaimed them to be the true representative organs of the people, and the Party started to campaign for them to replace “bourgeois” organs like the Provisional Government to achieve the true representation of the working class.
But once the Communists took power, the Soviets, being composed of actual representatives of workers and soldiers, began to pose a threat to Lenin, as they were not necessarily supportive of his policies. On July 10, 1918, his government nullified the mandates of all deputies outside the Bolshevik Party.
Yet the Soviets could not be dissolved, as they had been endorsed by Lenin many times, so they were reduced to rubber-stamp organizations. During all their years of existence, the only role the Soviets served was to unanimously endorse the Party’s policies.
After 1937, too, elections to the Supreme Soviet were also purely symbolic. The USSR was divided into electoral districts, with one candidate, pre-approved by the Party, with people being able to vote “for” or “against” them. As you can imagine, very few voted against.
Supreme Shtykov Assembly
Soon after the Soviet Union began occupying North Korea, they started to create a country which, to a large extent, mirrored the USSR. This new country had to have a quasi-parliament, too. Initially called the Provisional People’s Assembly for northern Korea (북조선림시인민회의), it was then renamed the People’s Assembly for northern Korea(북조선인민회의), and finally, the Supreme People’s Assembly (최고인민회의).
Delegates were handpicked by the Soviets, with the process overseen by Shtykov (who himself was elected to the Supreme Soviet at least once). Of course, each district had only one candidate – as it was in the USSR.
The members were supposed to approve all decisions of the Soviet administration unanimously, but there was one case when one deputy protested. The change of flag in northern Korea from the traditional one (still used in the South) to the current one was unpopular, and, during a session, one deputy proposed that the old flag be retained.
His proposal was declined by the Chairman, and the only parliamentary debate in the history of North Korea was over.
One of the problems the Soviet administration faced was that, officially, both Washington and Moscow were supposed to be promoting the idea of a united Korea. Any unified Korean government, in theory, was supposed to have support from the entire Korean peninsula. Pyongyang’s solution was to hold “underground elections” in southern Korea.
It is unknown if any activity actually took place in the South, which before the birth of the Republic of Korea on August 15, 1948 was ruled by an American administration not friendly to underground communist organizations. Yet, judging by Shtykov’s personal diary, reports suggested that 77.52% of South Koreans participated – difficult to believe.
Shtykov received the reports from the leader of the Workers’ Party of southern Korea Pak Hon Yong, suggesting that he may have been the one who came up with the falsification. There is also a chance that Pak was also deceived by his subordinates, as he cheerfully reported to Shtykov that in Seoul 110,000 people out of 600,000 have already voted, suggesting that Pak was receiving some “progress reports.”
This was duly reported to Moscow and may have ultimately influenced Stalin’s decision to approve a request for a war – a regime that unpopular in South Korea could not possibly survive, they likely thought.
The first SPA session opened in September 1948. The first Cabinet of ministers was formally endorsed by the SPA in September, and the procedures for elections to the Assembly and voting have not changed since.
The SPA, formally, wields supreme authority in the country. A simple majority is required for passing a vote of non-confidence against Kim Jong Un. A two-thirds supermajority is enough to amend the Constitution in any way.
The rules of the elections are formally outlined in the DPRK’s election law (선거법). While the electoral process is a pure formality, there are some notable parts of this law. It directly prescribes that voting is for or against the candidate, acknowledging that there may be only one. Campaigning is officially allowed, but the restrictions outlined in the law make it clear that one can campaign only for the government and only in the way the government sees fit:
The following electoral campaigning is forbidden:
- Campaigning for voting against, to abstain, or wreck the elections
- Slander against individual candidates
- Organising meetings and demonstrations unapproved by the Electoral Commission
- Organising propaganda organizations unapproved by the Electoral Commission
In a case of a candidate not receiving over 50% of the vote, states the law, no one is elected and fresh elections are to take place. Of course, this has never happened in North Korean history.
Those who are imprisoned cannot vote and the DPRK does not have any system of voting for people who live outside the country, so one cannot vote at the embassy even if he/she wants to.
Finally, it should be noted that the Leader often runs in a district with a “special” number, such as in 1998, when Kim Jong Il ran in the district 666, as this KCNA report shows:
The number 666 is becoming very popular amongst the South Korean compatriots these days. It is often quoted and is written on various products.
This is the number of the district 666, where the Great Leader Kim Jong Il run for the Tenth Supreme People’s’ Assembly last year.
They say that this number is explained as follows by the South Korean compatriots and Koreans living in other countries:
The number 666 is the number of the district where the Leader Kim Jong Il was highly venerated as a representative of the Supreme People’s’ Assembly. If you multiply 6x6x6 when you will get the number 216, symbolizing the day of the birth of the Beloved one – Second month, sixteenth day.
Also, 21 from 216 means the XXI century, and 6 means the sixth nation of the Korean people after ancient Choson, Koguryo, Koryo, Lee dynasty the sixth one is socialist Korea. Thus, 216 means that the Leader Kim Jong Il is the sun, which will guide united Korea in the XXI Century.
Finally, if you add the numbers 2+1+6, you will get 9 – the biggest odd number, which is divided only by three and thus is called the good fortune number since ancient times.
This interpretation of the number is very popular as a legend of the great man – Beloved and Respected Leader Kim Jong Il, who is mysterious as the heavenly creator.
The appointment of candidates
Representatives of the SPA are normally chosen by local Party committees. The candidacy is then submitted to the Party’s Cadre Section of the Organisation and Guidance Department for approval.
Being a member of the SPA has its benefits. Although the Assembly itself has no power, a representative is entitled to supply (공급) equal that of section chief of the Central Committee apparatus, meaning that they can live luxuriously by North Korean standards.
Roughly two weeks before the elections, representatives are given a uniform (including neckties and shoes) shipped to them from Pyongyang.
The SPA has a quota for workers, farmers, compatriots from Japan and other social groups. Military members are usually high-ranking officers – a colonel or more often a general or an admiral.
Day of unanimity
Voting procedure changed during the first few votes. During the first and the second SPA elections in 1948 and in 1957, there were two ballot boxes in each district, one white and one black. A bulletin cast in the white box was counted as a vote “for” the candidate and a bulletin cast in the black box as a vote “against.”
According to the regulations, one was supposed to grab the bulletin in one’s hand and then put the hand in the white box first and in the black box second – and discreetly release the bulletin into the box of the voter’s preference. However, this rule was unknown to the majority, if not all voters (according to Soviet documents), so officials were able to see who voted for and who voted against each candidate.
The 1959 elections were conducted in a more Soviet matter. There was only one voting box, and a voter could cast an empty ballot – which counted as a vote “for” the candidate, or cross out the candidate’s name – which counted as a vote against.
There were cubicles in each of the electoral districts, but an attempt to visit one drew suspicions of attempts to lodge a vote against. During the 1959 elections only fourteen people out of more than a million voted against and since 1962, all the results have been the same: 100.0% endorsement of the candidates.
During elections one is expected to come at the earliest time possible and receive a ballot from the local electoral commission. The ballot has a candidate’s name stamped in and in case the candidate is the ruling Kim, his title as well (like “the Great Leader respected Comrade Kim Jong Il”). The other side features the DPRK coat of arms.
Next, one bows to portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and puts the ballot in the box. Voting is over.
Elections are also conducted in concentration camps, even the infamous “administration centers for re-settlers”, which host people who are being punished extra-judicially. Inmates of “zones of revolutionization” can vote, although those in “total control zones” cannot. Guards vote, too, with polling stations being located in their residency zone.
However, participation rate lower than 100% is quite common in the DPRK. Someone might be late, traveling, ill, or may just die on election day.
In such cases, as I was told by former members of the North Korean electoral commission, they usually threw all the remaining ballots in, as an empty ballot counts as a vote “for” the candidate. Thus, a 100% participation rate is achieved – through a rather unnecessary falsification of totally controlled elections.
The standard phrase which is used in the propaganda to describe opposing the elections is “tramping the foundation of the revolutionary government” (혁명주권을 반석같이 다지다), which, for example, is included in a song about the elections, from 1998.
After an election, only the country-wide results (participation rate and percent of votes for the candidate) are announced. The only exception is the district in which the ruling Kim runs – the results in this district are announced separately and typically before the general results.
The table below shows that these results are quite predictable.
Official results of SPA elections
|Participation rate||Votes for the candidates||Number of representatives|
|August 25, 1948*|
|99.97% in the North|
77.52% in the South
|August 27, 1957|
|July 19, 1959 (secret by-elections)|
|99.99%||99.999%||56 elected out of 215|
|October 8, 1962|
|November 25, 1967|
|December 12, 1972|
|November 11, 1977|
|February 28, 1982|
|November 2, 1986|
|April 22, 1990|
|July 26, 1998|
|August 3, 2003|
|March 8, 2009|
|March 9, 2014|
*”Underground elections in South” officially were conducted for a few months in summer 1948.
Public statements about elections also differ from time to time, often reflecting the zeitgeist.
|Date||Election results’ announcement|
|August 25, 1948||Separate messages about Kim Il Sung, Kim Tu Bong, and Kang Kon being elected unanimously are published.|
|August 27, 1957||Kim’s cult suffers a major blow following Nikita Khrushchev’s Secret Speech. The deputies are given in a list, with no special mention given to Kim Il Sung.|
|July 19, 1959||The elections are kept secret and the state press ignores them completely.|
|October 8, 1962||Kim Il Sung is listed first. The rest of the deputies are listed according to their place in the state hierarchy.|
|November 25, 1967||Kim Il Sung is listed first and in bold. The rest of the deputies are listed according to their place in the state hierarchy.|
|December 12, 1972||Kim Il Sung’s election is announced in a special message and he is not included in a list of common representatives. He runs in the district 216, a reference to Kim Jong Il’s birthday. The rest of the deputies are mentioned in a row.|
|November 11, 1977||Kim Il Sung’s election is announced in a special message. The list of the representatives is seemingly not published at all, showing how closed and secretive the country had become.|
|February 28, 1982||Kim Il Sung’s election is announced in a special message. Kim Jong Il is listed in the general list, third after Kim Il Sung and Kang Ryang Uk but in bold script. The representatives are divided into important ones, given with positions and listed according to their place in the state hierarchy, and non-important, who are listed afterward and in a row.|
|November 2, 1986||Kim Il Sung’s election is announced in a special message. Kim Jong Il heads the list of representatives with his name in bold. The representatives are divided into important ones, given with positions and listed according to their place in the state hierarchy, and non-important, which are listed afterward and in a row.|
|April 22, 1990||Kim Il Sung’s election is announced in a special message. Kim Jong Il’s election is announced ahead of the list of representatives in a separate sentence. The representatives are divided into important ones, given with positions and listed according to their place in the state hierarchy, and non-important one, who are listed afterward and in a row.|
|July 26, 1998||Kim Jong Il’s election is announced in a special message. He runs in district 666. The rest of the representatives are listed in a row.|
|August 3, 2003||Kim Jong Il’s election is announced in a special message. He runs in district 649. The rest of the representatives are listed in a row.|
|March 8, 2009||Kim Jong Il’s election is announced in a special message. He runs in district 333. The rest of the representatives are listed in a row.|
|March 9, 2014||Kim Jong Un’s election is announced in a special message. He runs in district 111. The rest of the representatives are listed in a row. The results come out slightly later than usual.|
Standing Committee and the Chairman
The SPA rarely meets in its entirety. Day-to-day rubber-stamp duties are instead delegated to the Standing Committee (상임위원회, also called Regular Conference 상설회의 in 1972-1998). This tradition comes from the USSR, where the reasoning was that politics should not distract workers’ and farmers’ deputies from their day-to-day duties.
The only position of major significance within the Assembly is that of its Chairman, who meets foreign delegates and performs duties normally reserved for the head of state in most constitutional monarchies. The Chairman is not the formal head of the North Korean state: since 1972 this position has belonged to the Kims.
Only five people have occupied the position since 1948. The first was Kim Tu Bong, an elderly linguist who was purged in 1957. The next was Choe Yong Gon, demoted to the position from the post of the Minister of National Defence, who worked as Chairman until the change of the Constitution in 1972, when he became one of the DPRK’s vice-presidents.
The third was Hwang Jang-yop, who was Chairman until 1983 and defected to South Korea in 1997. His successor, Yang Hyong Sop, is still alive, and at 93 years old remains one of the oldest living politicians in the country. Kim Yong Nam has occupied the position since 1998 and it’s hard to point to any other prominent North Korean politician who has sat in the same chair for such a long time.
Voting in the SPA
Unlike China’s National People’s Congress, which, while remaining obedient to the Communist Party, has never voted unanimously in recent years, or the Vietnamese National Assembly, which may express non-confidence in some members of the elite, the SPA has no political power and is under the absolute control of the Workers’ Party.
SPA representatives are given free first class train tickets to Pyongyang. After they arrive at the capital, they are registered and receive their seat with row and place being written on a ticket they receive. They stay in the Yanggakdo Hotel – one of the best in Pyongyang.
A special bus with darkened windows takes them to the Assembly’s hall at Mansudae. Before the actual session, the MPs are trained to stand up from their seats simultaneously, applaud and shout “Hurrah!” when Kim Jong Un comes in or when he is proposed to be re-elected as a head of state.
Songs hailing the Kims are played in the parliament, and the SPA has its own orchestra to play them. All proposals are read by one of the members of the presidium – usually the Chairman and then approved by unanimous voting. Voting is done openly, by raising one’s hand with the SPA Representative certificate. There is no publicly available data on how many laws the body has passed this way.
After the SPA session, the deputies take a group photo, are shown famous attractions of Pyongyang and other places of the countries and are presented with gifts – such as fridges or TVs – before they go home.
Law or order
One of the most notable parts of the North Korean legislative process is that the country does not really differentiate between nationwide laws and orders passed by an organization or ministry. There are laws on the national flag or coat of arms but not on the national anthem, and it is not clear why regulations regarding bank credit are not included in law collections, but regulations on pollution of Taedong river are.
The reasonable explanation is that the authorities do not really distinguish between two: laws are prepared in the apparatus of the Central Committee and then passed through the SPA – thus they do not really differ from a Central Committee’s directive.
In the future
North Korea is something of a reverse constitutional monarchy. In a typical constitutional monarchy, parliament holds all the power, while the monarch is reduced to a rubber stamp figure. In the DPRK, the leader has all the power, while the parliament is reduced to a rubber stamp organ.
Yet there is historical precedent for a supposedly symbolic figure actually exercising the power which is given to them by law. Australians will remember the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam by Governor-General Kerr in 1975, while Canadians would likely quote Governor-General Jean’s prorogation of parliament in 2009.
This is also applicable to dictatorships: in 1943, after the allied invasion of Sicily, the Grand Council of Fascism voted 19 to 8 – with one abstention – to transfer the power of command over the Italian army from Benito Mussolini to King Emmanuel, ending the Duce’s rule over Italy.
The closest example to North Korea would the Soviet Union, which was voted out of existence by Declaration 142-N of the Supreme Soviet.
Should some crisis arise, we could see the SPA pass a vote of non-confidence against Chairman Kim, dissolving the Workers’ Party, reorganizing the country, and actually exercising the power it de jure holds. Until then, the MPs will vote unanimously – like they always have since 1948 – and will have about as much power as the pen Kim Jong Un uses to sign his orders.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun
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