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Elections in N. Korea

#Korea, Today and Tomorrow l 2023-12-20

Korea, Today and Tomorrow

The preliminary candidate registration for the April 10 general elections next year opened on December 12, signaling the start of the race for the 22nd general elections in South Korea. 

In 2024, there will be many elections around the world. Throughout next year, large and small elections are scheduled in over 70 countries, including the United States where the presidential election will be held. About 4.2 billion people on the globe will exercise their right to vote. 

We can’t help but wonder whether and how North Korea holds elections. Today, we’ll take a look at elections in North Korea with Jung Dae-jin, professor at Halla University in Wonju, Gangwon Province. 

In democratic countries, elections are one of the major methods that enable people to participate in politics by letting them directly choose someone to act on their behalf. 
An electoral system exists even in North Korea, which has maintained a dictatorship-based political system for decades. 

Many people may easily think that there are no elections in North Korea that has been ruled by dictatorship. But North Korea does hold elections, which are the flower of democracy, in accordance with law, as indicated by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. 

But the content and procedures of the elections in North Korea are somewhat different from those of the representation election system of liberal democracy. In one of its major elections, North Korea selects delegates to the Supreme People’s Assembly, which is equivalent to South Korea’s National Assembly. North Korean regime founder Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il ran for a seat in the assembly and actually became delegates to the legislative body. Current leader Kim Jong-un also assumed the same post in his early days in office. In North Korea, workers, farmers, soldiers and all working people exercise sovereignty through elections. 

North Korea nominally adopts democracy. Kim Jong-un was also elected as a delegate to the nation’s parliament in 2014. 

The first election for Supreme People’s Assembly members since Kim Jong-un took power highlighted the significance of the leader who was directly elected by the people. 

Through elections, North Korea selects delegates to People’s Assemblies at each level. People’s Assemblies have the Supreme People’s Assembly and the Local People’s Assemblies, which are similar to local councils. That is to say, North Korea’s elections include general elections and local elections. Professor Jung now explains election principles in North Korea. 

In South Korea, a citizen of 25 years of age or older is eligible for election as a member of the National Assembly, while a presidential candidate must be 40 years old or above. In North Korea, anyone who is 17 years old or above can stand for election. North Korean nationals living abroad have the right to vote and be elected. Many countries including South Korea hold overseas elections at diplomatic offices for their nationals living abroad. But North Koreans overseas should return to their country to vote. In the North, each voter has one vote. Elections are carried out under the principles of the universal, equal and direct suffrage by secret vote. The election principles are not much different from South Korea’s. 

North Korea’s constitution stipulates that elections to the organs of state power are conducted on the basis of universal, equal and direct suffrage by secret ballot. The election process is not so different from South Korea’s. First, an election committee is organized. It prepares and publishes the electoral register. Candidates for deputies to assemblies are recommended directly by residents, political parties or social organizations. Once candidates are recommended, they would be reviewed for qualifications before registering as candidates. After this process is complete, elections are held, with the entire country filled with excitement. 

Through special broadcasts and editorials, North Korean media encourage the citizens to participate in the elections. 

Not only my house but the entire people’s unit has been in the holiday mood since early morning. It is indeed the happiest day when we solidify our sovereignty with our own hands. 

On Election Day, men and women head toward voting places, wearing suits and the Korean traditional outfit of hanbok, respectively. In front of polling stations, they sing and dance to create a festive holiday atmosphere. 

I rushed to the polling station, acutely feeling that the ten million county residents are giving absolute support and trust to today’s election. 

North Korean broadcast media such as the Korean Central News Agency and Pyongyang Broadcasting Station visit polling stations in each region and interview local residents. It seems there is nothing abnormal about North Korean elections, in terms of the system or procedure. However, they still cannot be recognized as truly democratic elections. Why? 

There are underlying problems about how candidates register and how votes are cast. There’s only one candidate registered for each constituency, so people can only vote for or against that single candidate decided by the party. What is worse, secret voting is not applied even to the yes or no vote. Everyone knows whether a person voted for or against. If you want to vote for a candidate, you don’t have to go inside the polling booth. You can just put your ballot paper directly in the ballot box. Entering the polling booth is an act of voting against the candidate, abstaining or making an invalid vote. If a person enters the booth, everyone can see that and regards him or her as the person who goes against the will of the members of society. If a person wants to vote against the candidate, the voter is supposed to go to the polling booth and draw lines horizontally on the name of the candidate before putting the ballot in the box. But who can do that in a society like North Korea? This is why democracy is not practiced at all in North Korean elections. 

The problem of North Korean elections is the absence of free choice. Unlike in South Korea, where candidates of different parties stage fierce election campaigns, only one candidate runs for each constituency in North Korea. Voters only vote in favor of the single candidate chosen by the party. 

North Korean media openly encourage the people to vote “yes.” 

Residents also say that they voted in favor of the candidate. It is little wonder that North Korean elections always result in 100 percent approval. In short, only one candidate appears on each ballot, and the principle of secret vote is not protected. But a wind of change is blowing in the North Korean electoral system. 

On November 26, North Korea held an election to pick new delegates to local assemblies. In a major shift from previous elections, multiple candidates appeared. The final candidate was selected by residents to reflect their will, though only in a small way, and the candidates were given the opportunity to present their political views. It was something similar to the campaign scene of the representation election system. 

The change resulted from the revision of the election law in August. The revision called for the introduction of preliminary elections. That is, a primary was held in some constituencies to select a final single candidate among multiple candidates. They were all candidates from the Workers’ Party, of course, so it was nothing more than an intraparty primary. Despite the limitations, the introduction of primaries and campaigns means that the electoral system has changed, compared to the past.

To select new deputies to local assemblies, North Korea has recently held the first-ever elections with primaries and campaigns. Local residents in some constituencies were allowed to handpick a final single candidate among multiple candidates, and the final candidate met with voters to express his or her ambition and determination. That is, North Korea introduced competition into elections, though in a limited way, so it could highlight the residents’ right to vote and participate in politics. A change was seen in ballot boxes as well. 

In the past, voters who were in favor of the candidate simply put their ballot in a white ballot box, while those who were against the candidate were supposed to draw straight lines on the name of the candidate before putting their ballot in the box. Of course, no one would pick up a ballpoint pen to draw lines. But this time, there were two separate ballot boxes for approval or disapproval. When the votes are counted, you do not know who actually supported or opposed the candidate. The two different ballot boxes for “yes” or “no” votes indicate that the voting system has progressed. 

On November 27, North Korea’s state-run Korean Central Television showed leader Kim Jong-un casting his ballot in the local elections the previous day. 

At polling stations during the latest elections, North Korea set up two separate ballot boxes of different colors—green for approval and red for disapproval. The two different boxes were telling the people that they could vote against the candidate. In fact, there were opposing votes in the elections. 

In the 2019 elections to choose delegates to local assemblies, the voter turnout was 99.98 percent and 100 percent voted for the candidates. North Korea would claim that approval of the ruling party’s candidates is unanimous in any election. But why did some voters cast ballots against the candidates in the recent elections? 

Previously, North Korea reported over 99 percent voter turnout and 100 percent approval in elections. But this time around, 0.09 percent voted against candidates for delegates to provincial people’s assemblies. At the county level, the figure is even higher at 0.13 percent. This is extraordinary. 

Leader Kim Jong-un cannot monitor everything that is happening in local regions. With the rationing system collapsing a long time ago, local residents express their approval for those who have achieved something in their region and disapproval for those who have performed poorly. By letting the people choose the delegates who would work for their region, North Korea seeks to disperse the leader’s responsibility. In fact, the percentages of opposing votes are insignificant. They are not even a storm in a teacup. Still, North Korea is trying to hold democratic elections, at least in form. This is a noticeable change. 

A change in North Korea’s electoral system does not mean that local residents have a wider choice in politics. To become a candidate for the delegate to an assembly in North Korea, people still have to go through preliminary qualification review, based on their loyalty to the party. Through the revised election law, however, North Korea allows the people to make some choice, at the least, within the scope set by the party. Apparently, the purpose is to control public opinion through elections. 

As part of its people-first principle, the Kim Jong-un regime seeks to soothe public sentiment and take control of it. North Korea’s chronic food shortage is nothing new. For that reason, many party officials have been reprimanded or fired. Leader Kim Jong-un makes inspection trips to the sites that have produced results, but he sends Premier Kim Tok-hun or party officials to the sites that haven’t seen much progress. The leader has done this for years as part of his “responsibility-dispersal politics.” 

The recent local elections can be understood in the same context. By letting the people live as masters of their own destiny and historical development at each basic unit, the leader can be free from the responsibility to some extent. History will judge whether this gradual change will trigger the democratic transformation of the regime.

Amid the prolonged economic difficulties, North Korea has changed its electoral system as a means of managing public sentiment. It remains to be seen how the result of the new system may change North Korean society. 

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