- By Jake Scobey-ThalJake Scobey-Thal is assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy. Previously, he worked as a freelance reporter in Myanmar and as the Asia Associate for Human Rights Watch. His articles have appeared in The Nation, Next City magazine, and Salon among others. He holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
North Korea is holding parliamentary elections. Well, sort of.
Three days ahead of Sunday’s vote, the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland looks set to complete yet another clean sweep of the 687-seat Supreme People’s Assembly. But maintaining their unanimous hold on parliament shouldn’t be challenging: There are no opposition parties on the ballot. The Democratic Front, the governing coalition led by Kim Jong Un’s ruling Workers’ Party, has handpicked one — and only one — candidate for each district.
It’s nearly impossible to determine which individuals and institutions hold real power within the secretive North Korean government, but one thing is clear: The Supreme People’s Assembly is not one of them. Parliamentary elections, which are held every five years, are little more than a progranda excercise for a regime ruled by its despotic dictatorship at the top.
Still, the North Korean government remains determined to uphold at least the appearance of democratic legitimacy. On Wednesday, the state news agency KCNA reported that election preparations were “gaining momentum.” “Agitation activities are going on to encourage citizens to take active part in the election with high political enthusiasm and labour feats, amid the playing of ‘Song of the election.'”
Let the horserace begin.
Just days before ballots open, the efforts, according to the KCNA report, have been effective in mobilizing excitement among the key constituencies. “Seen in streets, public places, industrial establishments and co-op farms are ‘Let us all participate in election of deputies to SPA!’,” KCNA reported. The North Korean government is expecting near 100% turnout — voting after all, is mandatory. That doesn’t change the fact that the North Korean government, as it has after past parliamentary votes, will almost certainly report Monday that it had huge success in getting out the vote. Another victory for the Dear Leader!
But according to activists who work with North Korean defectors, these “agitation activities” also include increased surveillance and security. Analysts report that the election functions as an informal census to check for possible defections. It’s a neat trick: shoe horning a mechanism of repression into an instrument of sham democracy.
This time around, Kim Jong Un, the country’s supreme leader, is vying for a seat in the mountain district where his grandfather was born. While FP’s team of crack statisticians detected an ever so slight dip in Kim’s levels of support during the early days of February, the diminutive dictator looks to have smooth sailing ahead. “I feel very grateful for your expression of deep trust in me and extend warm thanks from the bottom of my heart,” Kim said in an open letter announcing his candidacy.
Kim, who like all candidates is running unopposed, is assured of winning. But in case any voters needed a nudge, the Central Committee of the Writers Union of Korea released a series of endorsement poems. “‘Going by the Name of Mt. Paektu’, ‘He Is Our Deputy,’ ‘Cheers of Korea’ and other poems,” KCNA reported, “vividly represent the immutable will of all service personnel and people to remain loyal to the Songun revolutionary leadership of Marshal Kim Jong Un.”
Poems written for other candidates include “We Will Vote for You,” “We Go to Polling Station,” “The Billows of Emotion and Happiness,” and “We Break into Cheers from the Bottom of Our Heart.” Seriously.
But Kim Jong Un is not simply running (against no one) for a parliamentary seat — he is also running against his father’s legacy. Will the younger Kim’s 100 percent margin of victory match that of his father? We will just have to wait for the Monday-morning-quarterbacking from the country’s pre-approved propoganda machine to answer these types of important questions.
The KCNA election reports have so far been silent the country’s horrific human rights record. A recent U.N. report implicated North Korean government officials in widespread torture and killings. As Kim would surely tell you, it’s a testament to his revolutionary leadership that he is able to nonetheless gain the unanimous backing of the North Korean people. Crimes against humanity apparently aren’t part of the messaging campaign.
While the country has no polling or professional punditry, you don’t have to be Nate Silver to forecast Sunday’s result.