No drama in North Korea’s elections, but plenty of anxiety for voters

Going to the polls is expected of all eligible voters, which effectively makes North Korean elections a powerful tool for checking up on the people.

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TOKYO // North Korean voters will make a choice on Sunday when they elect a new national legislature, but not for a candidate.

The ruling elite have already done that for them, and there’s only one per district.

They get to vote “yes” or “no”.

Almost all pick “yes”.

One thing they don’t get to decide is whether to bother voting. Going to the polls is expected of all eligible voters, which effectively makes North Korean elections a powerful tool for checking up on the people.

For outsiders trying to figure out what’s going on in North Korean politics, the elections for the Supreme People’s Assembly may shed some light on what personalities are currently in favour and likely to dominate in the years ahead. For North Korean authorities, the elections provide both a veneer of democracy and a means of monitoring the whereabouts and loyalties of average citizens.

Colourful posters urging citizens to go to the polls line the streets in Pyongyang and other cities. Along with nearly 700 other ‘deputies” expected to be seated in the new assembly, the supreme leader Kim Jong-un has announced his candidacy — in District 111 on sacred Mount Paekdu.

Official turnout rates in North Korean elections are generally reported at more than 99 per cent. Tomorrow’s will likely be the same.

Fictitious as that may sound, Michael Madden, editor of the NK Leadership Watch website, said it reflects one reason the autocratic North has elections at all: they provide “the most comprehensive assessment of the population”.

North Korean “is very good about mobilising the population for events”, Madden said.

Madden said North Korean security officials will review data on nonvoters to glean information on suspicious activity, since absentees could be workers who have snuck off to China for higher pay, people travelling inside the country without formal permission, or military personnel who have gone absent without leave. Officials use the data to conduct further investigations, make arrests and gauge the effectiveness of their social control apparatus.

Neighbourhood associations, student groups, workplaces and other local authorities see to it that participation is enforced, said Seo Jae-pyoung, 45, a North Korean defector who now works for a Seoul-based civic group called the Committee for the Democratisation of North Korea.

Not going to polls would be “unimaginable”, said Mr Seo, who voted in three Supreme People’s Assembly elections before he fled North Korea in 2000. “If we didn’t go to polls, we thought we would become reactionary forces and would be sent to prison camps.”

Everyone voted “yes”, he said, and he knows that because there was no privacy.

“We went inside the voting booth so closely one after another that we could see where the others had marked their ballots.”

The polls, usually held every five years, will be the first since Mr Kim took power after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in late 2011. They will take place about three months after a stunning purge in which Mr Kim had his once-powerful uncle, Jang Song-thaek, executed on treason charges.

Analysts are looking to see if Mr Kim will replace ageing legislators with younger, more loyal ones and will scour the balance of civilian and military officials, party apparatchiks and others for indications of what policies are on the rise.

“When officials are not renominated, this points to them falling out of favour,” said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in South Korea. “The sudden appearance of a new person points to the opposite.”

* Associated Press