Yes, There Are Elections in North Korea and Here's How They Work

"Let's all vote in agreement!" 

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North Korea will hold fair and open parliamentary elections this weekend, giving citizens a chance to decide which candidate will best represent their interests for the next five years. Ha, not really.

It's true that North Korea really is holding parliamentary elections this weekend, and, par for the course for that nation's politics, they're kind of horrifying. This is how it's going down.

North Korean Government

Kim Jong-un pointing. REUTERS/KCNA

Just because North Korea is a totalitarian regime doesn't mean it don't have a political structure. Technically, the regime is still led by deceased founder Kim Il-sung, who serves in spirit form as the country's Eternal President. The country's Supreme Leader deals with North Korea's corporeal affairs, like carrying out crimes against humanity and sentencing political advisors to death. Kim Jong-un has been North Korea's supreme leader since his father, Kim Jong-il, passed away in 2011.

This weekend's elections will instruct voters from 687 constituencies to select representative deputies, who will serve on the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) — the country's main legislative body — for the next five years. According to the North Korean Constitution, this is how the state is structured (quotes from an unofficial translation):

On the national level:

Supreme People's Assembly: "The Supreme People's Assembly is the highest organ of State power in the DPRK. The SPA exercises legislative power. When the SPA is not in session, the SPA Presidium also can exercise legislative power."

The presidium is a select group of SPA members who serve as Kim's inner circle, advising on political decisions.

National Defense Commission: "The NDC is accountable to the SPA"

Cabinet: "The Cabinet is the administrative and executive body of the highest organ of State power and a general state management organ. The Cabinet consists of the Premier, vice premiers, chairmen of commissions, ministers and some other necessary members."

The Cabinet is also accountable to the SPA.

On the local level:

Local People's Assembly: "Provincial (or municipality directly under the central authority), municipal (district), and county local people’s assemblies are local sovereign power organs. The LPA consists of deputies elected on the principle of universal, equal and direct suffrage by secret ballot."

Local People's Committee: "Provincial (or municipality directly under the central authority), municipal (district), and county local people’s committees are local sovereign power organs when the corresponding LPAs are in recess, and are administrative executive organs of local sovereignty."

The LPC is "subordinate" to the Cabinet.


Public Procurators' Office and Court: "Justice is administered by the Central Court, the Court of the province (or municipality directly under the central authority), municipal and county courts and the Special Court."

Believe it or not, the court is "accountable to the SPA, and to the SPA Presidium when the SPA is in recess."

Of course, the  Constitution could have saved a lot of space by referring to the country's political structure as it actually exists — a poor, brutal dictatorship that bends to the will of a single dictator.

How Elections Work

If you suspect that any division in power or nod to democracy in North Korea is a sham, you're right. "Voting" in North Korea is a mandatory exercise, which serves as both a census and way for officials to keep tabs on the public. The Economist explains:

[Voters] are presented with a single candidate in the district where they live. These candidates are chosen by the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland, the governing coalition, which is controlled by the Workers' Party. There is only one box to tick. Abstaining or voting no would be a dangerous act of treason, given that voting takes place in booths that do not provide any secrecy, and dissenting votes must be posted into a separate ballot box. In this way the population (everyone over 17 is obliged to vote) endorses the 687 deputies in the SPA, a body that, in any case, is merely a rubber-stamp parliament that is rarely convened. In practice the supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, calls the shots, supported by the Presidium, a smaller group of senior officials.

Kim Jong-un talking. REUTERS/KCNA

So "voting" is a very generous way to describe the process. This year, Kim is "running" in Mount Paektu, a mountain town on the Chinese border. Mount Paektu is an inactive volcano where Kim Il-sung was born, according to legend. Kim could use the position in parliament to enact changes within the SPA and possibly alter the constitution.

Consequences for not voting are severe.  According to the Telegraph, North Koreans must register one month in advance to participate in the mandatory activity. Defector Mina Yoon told the publication that "the government checks the list of voters and if your name is not on the list, they will investigate it. It is often during [an] election that the government finds out about defectors." She adds that defectors in China return to the DPRK just to register and vote, so that the government won't harm their families in retaliation for the defection.

The Campaign

Kim Jong-un with (his only) fans.  REUTERS/KCNA

In keeping with North Korean tradition, the state-run media is covering the upcoming elections as if they were a patriotic celebration. The English site for KCNA has posted a number of articles ahead of Sunday's elections which describe festive anticipation. One article, titled "DPRK Seethed with Election Atmosphere," notes that "election atmosphere is gaining momentum in the DPRK with the approach of March 9, a day of election for deputies to the 13th Supreme People's Assembly (SPA)."

The story continues:

Seen in streets, public places, industrial establishments and co-op farms are "Let us all participate in election of deputies to SPA!", "Let us all consolidate our revolutionary power as firm as a rock!" and other slogans... Meanwhile, agitation activities are going on to encourage citizens to take active part in the election with high political enthusiasm and labor feats, amid the playing of "Song of Election."

Another article exclaims that the upcoming elections have invigorated the country's poets:

"Going by the Name of Mt. Paektu", "He Is Our Deputy", "Cheers of Korea" and other poems vividly represent the immutable will of all service personnel and people to remain loyal to the Songun revolutionary leadership of Marshal Kim Jong Un. Among the poems are "The Billows of Emotion and Happiness", "We Break into Cheers from the Bottom of Our Heart" and "People's Joy" that represent the great honor and happiness of the citizens of the DPRK having another peerlessly great man at the helm.

Kim also graciously accepted his self-nomination, writing in an open letter that "I feel grateful for your expression of deep trust in me and extend warm thanks from the bottom of my heart." We can't wait to read his victory speech. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.