Today North Korea held its first “elections” for parliament under its leader Kim Jong-un. It is expected that the elections, which permit voters with only one option, will elevate loyal officials as a means of consolidating the leader’s power.
While he is top leader of the country, Kim Jong-un is not considered president. That title is held in perpetuity by his late grandfather. His father, Kim Jong-il, holds the title of ‘Supreme Leader’ for eternity. Mr. Kim, instead, has several other titles, one of which is Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army. Another of which is Marshall of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Today citizens in the world’s only dynastic communist dictatorship will exercise their “option” to vote … for members of the Supreme People’s Assembly. The purpose of the election is to effectively “rubber stamp” all decisions made by the leader and his inner circles. Five years ago North Korea held elections for parliament when Mr. Kim’s father was still alive. During that time one candidate ran without opposition in each of the 687 districts and all officials were elected with 100 percent voter support and a reported 99.98 percent voter turnout.
The not-so-hidden motive behind the elections is that they serve as a mechanism by North Korean authorities for checking on the location and political allegiance of its citizens – effectively a political census. On election day, voters pile in and rapidly cast unmarked ballots. If any individual has escaped to China or South Korea, their defection becomes immediately exposed.
According to those who defected from North Korea in the mid-1990s, anyone who opposes a candidate is supposedly allowed to cross out the name; however, this leads to monitoring of the event. These required parliamentary elections are a reason that some previously opted to leave their native country, even at risk of personal peril. Not participating in the elections results in punishment by the North Korean government.
The message is clear and communicated on party posters and in Rodong Sinmun, the main party-run newspaper: “Let’s all vote in agreement!” North Koreans must fulfill their “duty” and show a “single-minded solidarity” for the ruling party and leader Kim Jong-un. Some sign of unrest is indicated, however, with uncertain outcome: notice boards at polling stations in at least two provinces have been destroyed or damaged, suggesting sabotage. In one instance, the local State Security Department was implicated and surveillance by military patrol is being stepped up in response.
For those outside the country, the “election” provides the benefit of gaining a glimpse as to which officials are in and who has fallen out of Mr. Kim’s favor. This is in line with the political purges and personnel changes that he has implemented since taking over the leadership position following his father’s death in December 2011. He is particularly intolerant of even a potential challenge to his rule. Most dramatic of all the purges was the execution in December 2013 of the second-most powerful man in the North. Mr. Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, was executed on the grounds of corruption and accusations that he was plotting to overthrow Mr. Kim.
Mr. Kim has been overhauling many aspects within his purview over the past two years that he’s been in power. Examination of the power players of the Supreme People’s Assembly is one of the last institutions to undergo scrutiny. Their influence covers policy issues on North Korea’s weapons development, and issues surrounding the National Defense Commission. The outcome of today’s parliamentary election will serve to boost Mr. Kim’s confidence, especially in replacing his uncle, Mr. Jang, and his followers.
By Fern Remedi-Brown