Asia

North Korean Elections: An Exercise in Futility


The results of this event will change nothing in the country, and will not affect international relations in any way – an unusual set of circumstances for an election.  Still, the process around the vote provides some insight into the shadowy inner workings of North Korean politics.

“North Korea” and “elections:” the two concepts seem diametrically opposed, and yet on Sunday, July 19th, local elections were held in every district for the first time since Kim Jong Un assumed power.  To call these elections “free” and “democratic,” though, would be a stretch.  Every candidate up for election belongs to the somewhat ominous-sounding Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland (including Dear Leader Kim Jong Un himself), and each district will have exactly one candidate.  Voter turnout is mandatory and generally around 100%, which is certainly much higher than turnout in the United States, and voting “no” is considered treason.  The results of this event will change nothing in the country, and will not affect international relations in any way – an unusual set of circumstances for an election.  Still, the process around the vote provides some insight into the shadowy inner workings of North Korean politics.

For one, despite the decided lack of choice for North Korean voters, the government began ramping up propaganda efforts around July 4th, when the names of the candidates were released.  Political posters such as the one below, which reportedly urges citizens to vote “yes”, have been put up nationwide.

Children as young as nine years old have been recruited to volunteer in campaign activities, and the state newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, has urged an increase in “vigilance” and stressed the importance of guarding against the “enemies” of North Korean-style socialism.  Given that the party has no chance of losing, though, why ramp up propaganda?  Perhaps the party is seeking a distraction from current living conditions, which are assumed to be pretty dismal.  South Korea’s central bank recently estimated that North Korea’s economy grew by 1% in 2014, but the UN has stated that approximately 70% of the country’s population does not have access to adequate food, and safe drinking water remains a primary concern.  Putting up some political posters and mandating participation in campaign events seems to be an excellent way to stir up the public and shift attention to western decadence and the threat it poses to the North Korean way of life.

The bigger question, though, is: why hold elections at all?  The public certainly knows the elections are a sham, and Kim Jong Un, like his father and grandfather before him, does not seem particularly keen on courting the international community.  Observers have speculated that North Korea is planning a rocket launch, and concern has been growing over the country’s weapons development activities, which may include nuclear warheads.  The North Korean government even cancelled an invitation for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to visit Kaesong industrial park back in May, without so much as an explanation.  Holding quasi-democratic elections to curry western favor certainly, then, does not seem a plausible explanation.

The elections do serve as a sort of informal census, for one, since not voting is treasonous and therefore turnout tends to be almost 100% of the population.  For a country with very little infrastructure, the value of having these regular elections to keep track of the population should not be underestimated.  Additionally, being able to claim 100% popular support for the Dear Leader and every member of his political party isn’t a bad piece of propaganda, though certainly everyone is aware of the reality of the situation.

So on Sunday, July 19th the North Korean people went to the polls to cast their votes, and there was no CNN-style tally of the results, complete with Wolf Blitzer and holographic representations of the voting districts, or disputes over broken machines or hanging chads.  On Monday the 20th everything was exactly the same, and we all went back to worrying about the myriad of challenges North Korea poses to the international community: nuclear weapons, a dictator who purges government officials who fall asleep during meetings, a starving population, and a struggling economy (to name a few).


Michelle Bovée is an Account Executive at a business development firm in the Washington, D.C. Metro Area and a graduate of the London School of Economics MSc International Relations program. She is a staff writer forCharged Affairs, where her focus areas include current events and international economics.

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