North Korea keeps an eye on the people in election

A singer entertains the crowd at one of the country's voting stations; a full turnout is obligatory. Picture: AP
A singer entertains the crowd at one of the country's voting stations; a full turnout is obligatory. Picture: AP
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North Korean voters made a choice yesterday when they voted for a new national legislature, but not for candidates. The ruling elite had already done that for them, and there was only one per district. They were allowed to vote “yes” or “no”.

One thing they do not 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 establish what is happening in North Korean politics, yesterday’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.

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, supreme leader Kim Jong-un himself announced his candidacy – in District 111 on sacred Mount Paekdu.

Michael Madden, editor of the NK Leadership Watch website and a contributor to the 38 North news bulletin, said the turnout reflects one reason the autocratic North has elections at all: They provide “the most comprehensive assessment of the population”.

Mustering the nation every so often is a chance for the authorities to hone their mobilisation skills, check up on the efficiency of local leaders and get a snapshot of internal movements.

“The DPRK is very good about mobilising the population for events,” Mr Madden said, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

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.”

Mr Madden said North Korean security officials will review data on non-voters to glean information on suspicious activity – since absentees could be workers who have gone to China for higher pay, people travelling inside the country without formal permission, or military personnel who have gone absent without leave.

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 Democratisation of North Korea. Not going to polls would be “unimaginable,” said Mr 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.”

Everyone voted “yes,” he said, and 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.

The polls – usually held every five years – will be the first since Mr Kim took power after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in late 2011. They will take place about three months after a sudden purge in which Mr Kim had his once-powerful uncle, Jang Song Thaek, executed.

Analysts are looking to see if he will replace aging legislators with younger, more loyal ones and will 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.