Why is North Korea holding elections?
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Why is North Korea holding elections?

YOU’LL likely recognise North Korea as a dynastic totalitarian dictatorship – and you would be dead right in that summary. But what may surprise you is that every four or five years that same dictatorship holds nationwide elections; after all, they need to live up to their full name – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

When authorities call them “elections,” they do so in the loosest sense of the word. There’s no denying the fact the country is under dictatorial rule, with leadership passed down through the bloodline of the Kim family – current Supreme Leader being Kim Jong Un.

So why is the government holding elections on March 10? And what exactly does “democracy” look like in the world’s most secretive autocracy.

Why are they holding elections?

The upcoming elections in March will be to elect new members of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), the highest body of state power who exercises legislative power.

All 687 districts nationwide will head to the polls to vote for their candidate.

Voting in the country is mandatory, which is not unheard of in other countries. Australia, Belgium, and Singapore, for example, all have a compulsory voting system in which citizens are legally compelled to turn up to a polling station.


North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (rear 2nd L) attending the Third Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang, April 21, 2018. Source: KCNA via KNS/AFP

This pressure means North Korea routinely gets a 100 percent turnout for every election, also allowing authorities to use the voter roll as a national census.

So far so good, right? Well, like all things North Korea, it’s not quite that simple.

Dummy democracy

When the North Korean people exercise their “democratic” rights, they are not faced with much of a choice, or, in fact, any choice at all.

There is only one candidate on the ballot in each district. This candidate is chosen by the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), the sole governing party of North Korea whose chairman is, you guessed it – Kim Jong Un.

Even if there were a choice of representative, the SPA is nothing more than a rubber-stamp parliament for any plans of Kim and the WPK. It doesn’t hold any real power and has no room to effect change in their respective districts.

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The only option open to people when casting their vote is to cross the name out to show they are not voting for the candidate on the ballot. But this, like any kind of dissent in North Korea, is highly dangerous.

Voting is not done in secret and dissenting ballots are filed into a separate box from those that conform. To ruin your ballot is essentially raising your head above the parapet for investigation by the authorities and restrictions.

Failing to register can be even more serious.

While in Australia you may receive a AU$10 fine for not turning up, in North Korea you could be risking your life.


North Korean soldiers dancing after casting their votes in the election of deputies to the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly at Paektusan Constituency No. 111. March 10, 2014. Source: AFP/KCNA via KNS

Defector Mina Yoon told the Telegraph elections are a time when everyone is watching for acts of defiance.

People must register a month before the election and the government checks the list of voters for anyone missing, Yoon said. Anyone found missing not only risks themselves being sent to labour camps, known for their brutality, but their extended family and future generations.

It is often during this time the government is able to identify defectors so some defectors over the border in China will return to North Korea just to register and avoid detection, Yoon said.

One horse race still worth watching

Despite such an overwhelmingly predictable outcome, North Korean analysts will still be watching March’s election with keen interest.

There are 687 district candidates, all of which are selected by the WPK. The selection will provide some hints of any shift in the country’s elite structure and who Kim chooses to have in his orbit.