N Korea elections: An empty show?

Nothing sensational can be expected to come of the largely ritualistic parliament elections in North Korea.

The national parliament is bound to be a rubberstamp institution, writes Lankov [AP]

On March 9, virtually all North Korean adults will be expected (or rather required) to come to their local polling station in order to partake in the elections of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), the North Korean parliament.The ritual has been repeated every four or five years and hence is quite predictable.

First, the voters form remarkably orderly cues, and upon entering the station they will make a deep bow to the portraits of the Leaders from the Kim family which has been running the country for almost 70 years. Having completed this important ritual, they will be issued ballot papers, whereupon they will proceed to a voting box. The ballot will have only one candidate, even though the voter has the theoretical option of voting against the candidate. If the North Korean media is to be believed, not a single person nationwide has exercised this theoretical right.

The picture described above is quite typical of Stalinist electoral systems. First created in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, this pattern was then copied across the socialist bloc. The standout feature of this system was the non-competitive nature of the elections. There was only one candidate in every electoral district, thus the success of a given candidate was preordained. The party bureaucracy decided the names of the candidates well before the elections were held.

A national parliament elected in such a way was bound to be a rubberstamp institution. In all communist countries, it was in session for only a few days a year. Its members were convoked in order to vote for a great number of government bills in quick succession.

The North Korean government, as is often the case, has taken this model to its logical extreme. In the Soviet Union, and other state socialist countries, the officially published results of elections usually claimed that 99 percent of its people had come to the polling stations and that roughly 99 percent of that 99 percent had voted for official candidates. In other words, it was tacitly admitted that a very small minority of people had either not voted, or had voted against the government candidates.

Initially, this pattern was followed in North Korea too, but from 1962, things changed – every election since then has (according to official statements) been voted in by 100 percent of the population, who all voted for officially approved candidates. Technically this may well have been the case: After all, it would be a decidedly reckless act to cross out the name of the candidate under the watchful eye of officials. Since the 1990s, the approach has been somewhat relaxed, the North Korean government still claims that 100 percent of all votes were in favour of official candidates, but the official participation rate has gone down to 99.8 percent.

The North Korean government still claims that 100 percent of all votes were in favour of official candidates, but the official participation rate has gone down to 99.8 percent.

The SPA members always vote for the bills drafted by the government and the party leadership. To the best of our knowledge, within the 68 years of the SPA history, not a single member of this institution has ever voted against any bill which was introduced to the parliament.

An empty show

There is little doubt why this seemingly empty show continues to be staged regularly and has been for North Korea’s entire history – elections are meant to demonstrate the mass support that the North Korean government allegedly enjoys, and also give the Kim family regime an air of legitimacy. While an absolute monarchy for all intents and purposes, North Korea is technically a republic, and how can a republic exist without regular elections? Competitive or not.

According to established tradition, the current North Korean leader himself usually runs in the elections. Kim Jong Il was usually elected in the electoral district 666 – North Korean government propagandists obviously unaware of the religious connotations when they claimed that progressive peoples of the world use this number as a symbol of their devotion to the leader.

In spite of the complete (indeed, 100 percent) predictability of its results, SPA elections are still of some interest to policy analysts.

First of all, the Supreme People’s Assembly’s (SPA) composition is important. Most government-approved candidates are exemplary workers, for whom a stint as a member of parliament is a reward for their selfless labour. However, there are also a number of civil and military leaders among the SPA members. While all top bureaucrats are always members of the SPA, for lesser officials, election to this body is an honour and sign of promotion. Therefore, if analysts see that a young bureaucrat or military officer is elected, this is a sure indication of this person’s rising political fortunes.

The SPA’s composition also indicates the relative strength of different groups within the North Korean state. If we see more industrial managers among the newly elected members, this is usually a sign that more attention is being given to economic growth. Conversely, if more military officers are elected, this would indicate a renewed emphasis on defence.

The SPA also often serves as a venue in which important political statements are made. Even speeches of ordinary members – however lengthy and dull – do contain hints as to the current policy line being pursued in Pyongyang.

The coming SPA elections are of a somewhat greater significance because these are the first elections to be held under the reign of Kim Jong Un. In the new SPA list we are likely to see names of younger officials, people who will  – in due course –  become part of Kim Jong Un’s leadership team, people who will be running North Korea in the years to come.

Still, one should not expect any sensational stories from the largely ritualistic event. The greatest sensation, if the officially published approval rate, would slide a bit to a figure around 99 percent. However, even this is not likely: Almost certainly, it will stay at the old good level of 100 percent.

Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia”.