North Koreans vote in parliament 'election' that may offer clues to shifts in power

Election of representatives to the Supreme People's Assembly doubles as national head count with the turnout above 90 per cent

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 March, 2014, 12:47pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 March, 2014, 10:32am

North Koreans have voted in a pre-determined election for a rubber-stamp parliament - an exercise that usually doubles as a national head count and may offer clues to any power shifts in Pyongyang.

The vote to elect representatives for the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) was taking place as scheduled, the state-run KCNA news agency said, adding that voter turnout was 91 per cent as of 2pm yesterday.

Those who are ill or infirm and cannot travel to polling stations are casting votes at special "mobile ballot boxes", it added.

"Overjoyed" voters rushed to polling stations across the country from early in the morning, the news agency claimed, adding many danced and played music on the street in praise of the leader, Kim Jong-un.

The North's state TV showed hundreds of people across the country clad in brightly coloured traditional dresses dancing in circles on the street.

It's a chance to see who might be tagged for key roles under Kim Jong-un
Professor Yang Moo-jin

State-run media have in recent weeks stepped up propaganda to promote the election, with a number of poems produced to celebrate voting under titles including The Billows of Emotion and Happiness and We Go To Polling Station.

Apart from the physical casting of votes, there is nothing democratic about the ballot. The results are a foregone conclusion, with only one approved candidate standing for each of the 687 districts.

It was the first election to the SPA under the leadership of Kim, who took over the reins of power on the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in December 2011.

And like his father before him, Kim stood as a candidate - in constituency number 111, Mount Paektu.

Koreans have traditionally attributed divine status to Mount Paektu and, according to the North's official propaganda, Kim Jong-il was born on its slopes.

Elections are normally held every five years to the SPA, which only meets once or twice a year, mostly for a day-long session, to rubber-stamp budgets or other decisions made by the ruling Workers' Party.

The last session in April 2013 adopted a special ordinance formalising the country's position as a nuclear weapons state - a status that both South Korea and the United States have vowed not to recognise.

The real interest for outside observers is the final list of candidates or winners - both lists being identical.

Many top Korean officials are members of the parliament, and the election is an opportunity to see if any established names are absent.

It comes at a time of heightened speculation over the stability of Kim's regime.

Kim has already overseen sweeping changes within the North's ruling elite.

"It's a chance to see who might be tagged for key roles under Kim Jong-un," said Professor Yang Moo-jin of the University for North Korean Studies.

"The list of names can also point to what, if any, generational changes have been made and what policy directions Kim Jong-un might be favouring," Yang said.

In the absence of any competing candidates, voters are simply required to mark "yes" next to the name on the ballot sheet.

"Let us all cast 'yes' votes," said one of many election banners that state TV showed being put up in the capital Pyongyang.

And they do. The official turnout at the last election in 2009 was put at 99.98 per cent of registered voters, with 100 per cent voting for the approved candidate in each seat.

For the North Korean authorities, the vote effectively doubles as a census, as election officials visit every home in the country to ensure all registered voters are present and correct.

"At any other point in the year, family members of missing persons can get away with lying or bribing surveillance agents, saying that the person they are looking for is trading in another district's market," said New Focus International, a defector-run website dedicated to North Korean news.

"But it is during an election period that a North Korean individual's escape to China or South Korea becomes exposed," it said.

Ahn Chan-Il, a defector who heads the World Institute for North Korea Studies in Seoul, said the crackdown was undermining the accuracy of the census, with many local officials not daring to report people missing from their neighbourhood.

"Otherwise, they would find themselves in trouble as it's their responsibility," Ahn said.