Elections for the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), the parliament of North Korea, were held on March 9, 2014. Such elections take place every five years. The last polls, originally scheduled for 2008, were held in 2009, most likely in response to the worsening health condition of then leader Kim Jong Il. The elections in 2003 had been postponed by a few months in reaction to the US invasion of Iraq and were thus held in August that year. Given all these previous exceptions, it is noteworthy that, technically speaking, the 2014 elections were rather regular. It would thus be wrong to interpret them as the expression of Kim Jong Un’s desire to reshape the political landscape after the purge of Jang Song Thaek in December 2013. The elections might have been a welcome occasion to do so, but they were not primarily held to achieve that goal.
There are compelling reasons for regarding the elections as nothing but a farce. But SPA elections, as well as SPA sessions, are—unlike Party Congresses, for example—among the few regularly conducted political activities in North Korea. Given the fact that we have few alternatives, it is worth the effort to try and dig a little bit deeper.
Media Campaign to Prepare the Election
On January 8, 2014, it was declared that the SPA elections would be held on March 9. A number of steps followed, illustrating the strong determination of the state to create the impression of a formally correct procedure.
Among those steps was the nomination on February 4 of Kim Jong Un as a candidate in all constituencies of the country. He chose Paektusan Constituency No. 111, clearly a deliberately symbolic decision given the close connection of his two predecessors to that holy mountain of the North Korean revolution. But there seems to be no standard “leader’s constituency.” Kim Jong Il ran for the 2003 elections at Constituency 649, and in 2009 at Constituency 333; so in the future, Kim Jong Un will very likely make a different choice for the next SPA elections in 2019.
Repeated references to absolute trust, single-minded unity and monolithic leadership as well as the overall language of related reports were strong reminders of what we could call classical leader idolization during the rules of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. This is noteworthy, since I had the impression that such language had been somewhat reduced during Kim Jong Un’s first two years in power, making room for a more pragmatic focus on actual projects. This period of restraint seems to have ended with the purge of Jang Song Thaek. The fact that the leader gave not one, but two programmatic speeches in February—one on agriculture, and one on ideology—confirms this impression.
On February 19, Kim Jong Un sent an open letter to all voters in what can be interpreted as a call to show loyalty to him and his leadership. In doing so, he closely followed the example of his father who sent such open letters to voters on July 10, 2003, and again on February 18, 2009. Obviously, Kim Jong Un, who in his public appearances differed so markedly from his father, decided that this time he would follow the behavior of his predecessor.
The March 9 Elections
On Election Day, Kim Jong Un voted at the Kim Il Sung University of Politics, where the candidate was commander of a KPA unit, i.e. a member of the military. It is remarkable that among those who accompanied him on this occasion were not only the usual suspects including Choe Ryong Hae—now allegedly the number two official in North Korea—but also Kim Yo Jong, who is Kim Jong Un’s younger sister and has long been rumored to be politically ambitious and active.
Paektusan Constituency No. 111, where Kim Jong Un was running as a candidate, might be in a remote area, but those registered there as voters are also an illustrious circle. They include Jang Jong Nam (Minister of Defense), Yang Hyong Sop (Vice President of the Presidium of the SPA), Ri Yong Mu (Vice Chairman of National Defence Commission), Kim Won Hong (Minister of State Security), Choe Pu Il (Minister of People’s Security) and Kim Chang Sop (Director of the Ministry of State Security Political Bureau). On March 10, the Central Election Committee reported that 100 percent of the voters of the constituency took part in voting and all of them voted for Kim Jong Un.
According to the official report issued by the Central Election Committee, 99.97 percent of registered voters cast their ballot (2009: 99.98 percent), and all of them voted for the candidates. The state media published the full list of names of the deputies in the 686 constituencies (2009: 687), although, as in 2009, only in the Korean version.
More detail on these members and who they are is typically provided a few weeks after the election, usually during the first regular session of the newly elected parliament. According to that report, in 2009, 316 deputies had been elected for the first time (46 percent); in 2003, that number stood at about 50 percent. It is useful to have these facts in mind before we jump to conclusions about an alleged attempt by Kim Jong Un to replace the elite after the Jang Song Thaek purge. Unless it turns out that he replaced 60 percent or more, it would be hard to argue that something extraordinary happened. The numbers are not out yet, but Table 1 is illustrative of what additional information we can look forward to when the SPA soon convenes its first session.
Table 1. Detailed Results of SPA Elections in 2003 and 2009.
|11th SPA 2003||12th SPA 2009|
|Winners of Order of Kim Il Sung, Kim Il Sung Prize and the titles of “Hero of the Republic” and “Labor Hero”||48%||42.40%|
|Holders of academic degrees and titles||89.50%||90.40%|
|Below 35 years of age||2.20%||1%|
|Age group 36-55 years||50.10%||48.50%|
|Age group above 56 years||47.7||50.50%|
Source: KCNA (various issues), compiled by Ruediger Frank.
If, in 2009, 16.9 percent of the deputies came from the military, 10.9 percent were workers, and 10.1 percent were farmers, who were the remaining 62.1 percent? Such gaps are somewhat typical for North Korean statistical reports (there are indications that the majority of SPA members were bureaucrats and party officials). If we compare the 2003 and 2009 election results, we find fewer women, a slightly higher rate of academics and university graduates, and a higher average age of the deputies. The most striking difference was in the class background: the percentage of workers dropped from 33.4 percent to a mere 10.9 percent. Despite what appears to be a general emphasis in the DPRK political discourse on the military and the working class, both groups are heavily underrepresented; bureaucrats seem to take almost two-thirds of all seats. It will be interesting to see how the 2014 elections compare to these results.
The Relevance of the SPA Elections
Socialist systems have been notorious for holding elections with one candidate per seat and affirmative votes close to the 100 percent mark. We rightly ask why the people in those countries are willing to accept such a charade. But what sounds like a joke in the ears of someone from a Western democracy with its focus on procedures is not devoid of a certain internal logic.
The fact that parliamentary elections take place at all reflects the claim included in the official name of the country (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). The North Korean leadership seems to agree, in principle, that elections are a necessary part of a democracy. However, the reality of these elections differs from Western ideals, as much as the North Korean image of a proper democracy is not the same as the one prevalent in the US or in Europe.
Democracy in North Korea is defined as the rule of the majority, and competition between political forces is seen as the expression of divergent interests. For a Marxist-Leninist, such competition, or antagonism, can exist only in capitalism—between the two classes of workers and bourgeoisie. But the socialist revolution eliminates this antagonism by giving power to the working class, with the Communist Party as its only representative. Since democracy is defined as the rule of the majority, the dictatorship of the proletariat and the power monopoly of the Communist Party are seen as the perfect incarnation of democracy. For somebody who has been convinced of this logic through a life of political education, competitive elections simply make no sense.
For a North Korean, this idea is adjusted to the leader system; from early childhood, he is told that the existence of a leader is the only guarantee for the well-being of the people and the country. Once the idea of monolithic leadership is accepted, there is even less room for competitive elections. It is useful to be aware of this logic, as it helps us to understand that what we call fair and democratic elections is not only prevented by the barrel of a gun, but by a powerful and largely effective ideological indoctrination.
A related point concerns the various political parties in North Korea. It may sound odd to many, but the North Korean state does care about its reputation. Legally, the DPRK is thus a multi-party state, where the Korean Workers’ Party exists together with the Korean Social Democratic Party and the Chondoist Party (조선천도교청우당). But the leading role of the Korean Workers’ Party has been written into the constitution; how can that be reconciled with the existence of other parties?
The solution to this problem was the forming of a coalition or alliance, called the Democratic Front for the Reunification of Korea. Such a construct was not unusual in Leninist socialist countries. In East Germany, for example, this alliance was called “Nationale Front” and included, in addition to the ruling Socialist Unity Party, fifteen other political parties and organizations, including the Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, National Democrats and Liberal Democrats. Potential opposition was thus internalized before it could emerge. Voters were asked to vote for the candidates of the respective “front,” not of a particular party.
With only one candidate per seat, and the stated principle that these elections are not supposed to be competitive but rather constitute a public confirmation in the people’s trust in their leadership, the interesting point about the SPA elections is therefore not the election as such, but the selection of candidates and the actual impact they will have.
As far as we know, identification of the constituencies in North Korea with their assemblymen/women is weak. Voters know who they cast their ballot for, but that is it. That may sound odd for Americans, with their usually close relationship between congressional members and their constituencies. This is, however, not the global standard. In Germany, for example, the link is much weaker. Many candidates for the Bundestag are not elected directly. German voters have two votes: one for a particular candidate and another for a party list; the percentage of votes a party receives determines how many of its listed candidates will get a mandate. The loyalty of candidates elected in such a way is entirely with the party and those individuals who put them as high and safely as possible on that party list.
In a very remote way, things work somewhat similarly in North Korea. The loyalty of an SPA member will be with those who selected him for candidacy, not with those who elected him. The final say in this regard rests with the Korean Workers’ Party, which is also true for the candidates from military units. However, how does one get the Party’s trust? Like elsewhere: through ambition, connections, networking and exhibition of great loyalty. This is, definitely, a highly competitive process. To be sure, this is not about democratic competition for voter support, but rather about bureaucratic competition for the trust of one’s superiors. But competition it is, and a fierce one at that.
Taking this into consideration, simply dismissing the SPA as a rubberstamp parliament consisting of faceless puppets on a string would not be entirely correct. Better to think of it as a group of ambitious and successful apparatchiks, each of whom managed to prevail in a rather tough competition. They know the rules of their system quite well; after all, this is how they got so far. If everything is stable in the system, they will keep their heads down and do exactly what they are told, reaping the material and social benefits of being a VIP in return for rubberstamping whatever the leader suggests. Flexibility exists in smaller tasks, which are usually of a local nature. Korea is notorious for its regional rivalry; the North is no exception. In particular, the western Pyongan provinces and the eastern Hamgyong provinces are said to be engaged in fierce rivalry, and everyone is united in envy of the capital Pyongyang where most resources go. The standard priority of an SPA member will be to justify the trust of those who put him into his position by serving local interests as well as he can, for example, by humbly suggesting his home region as the perfect location once the leader decided to build a ski resort or a special economic zone there.
There are historical examples, however, of how a ritualized and state controlled voting process can become the source of discontent and opposition. In East Germany, the frustration over a geriatric and inflexible government grew as news about Gorbachev’s reforms spread. One way to express this dissatisfaction was, in lieu of alternative candidates, to simply invalidate the ballot paper, which a large number of voters, many of them openly, did in the local elections in May 1989. When Egon Krenz announced the result—98.85 percent “yes” votes—it was clear to everyone that the state had conducted an act of vote rigging. Related accusations played a major role in the early phase of anti-state demonstrations in October 1989 that led to the implosion of the system and eventually to German unification. This is not to say that North Korea is there yet; but asking the people for their opinion is always somewhat risky, even in a tightly controlled dictatorship.
In short, the SPA elections tell us a lot about the internal logic that holds the North Korean system together. Furthermore, they provide the background for fierce internal competition and thus contribute to the formation of an elite of ambitious mid-level politicians who one day might become much more than just rubber stamps. The SPA is a forum for rivalry between regions in a country that many of us tend to regard as more homogeneous than it actually is. Under certain conditions, the parliament can serve as one potential source for or focal point of discontent. Despite their questionable nature, we should thus not underestimate the role of the SPA elections and of the legislature in North Korea.
 “Kim Jong Un Visits Kim Il Sung University of Politics and Takes Part in Election of Deputy to SPA,” KCNA, March 9, 2014, http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2014/201403/news09/20140309-19ee.html.
 Not that it would matter much, but some Western media were ignorant enough to report that Kim Jong Un received 100 percent of the country’s votes. This was technically impossible as he ran only in one particular constituency.
 “중앙선거위 최고인민회의 제13기 대의원선거결과에 대하여” (Central Election Committee: On the Results of the Election to the 13th SPA), KCNA, March 11, 2014, http://www.kcna.co.jp/calendar/2014/03/03-11/2014-0311-007.html.
 Article 12 of the constitution: “The state shall…strengthen the dictatorship of the people’s democracy…”
 Voices quoted by the state media reflect this idea. On KCNA, Koreans from Japan (a.k.a. overseas’ compatriots) were quoted as saying, “Election in capitalist countries is a competition between a tiny handful of wealthy and powerful persons, but in the DPRK it is a synonym for happiness of electing representatives among ordinary people and becomes an important occasion to demonstrate the single-minded unity. Such election is beyond imagination in capitalist countries…” (“Election of Deputies to 13th SPA Under Way,” KCNA, March 9, 2014, http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2014/201403/news09/20140309-11ee.html). Other quotes include passages such as: “The ballots for candidates are an expression of profound thanks to the country,” and “Through the election, I came to reconfirm my duty as a DPRK citizen” (“DPRK Seething with Election Atmosphere,” KCNA, March 9, 2014, http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2014/201403/news09/20140309-13ee.html).
 This party is quite interesting in many respects. Take, for example, the references to Kim Jong Un’s father and grandfather that continue to be published in the North Korean media. They sometimes include the fascinating formulation “believing in people as in Heaven” (이민위천), which was pronounced as the lifelong maxim of Kim Jong Un (“Kim Jong Un’s Feats Lauded,” Rodong Sinmun, February 5, 2014, http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2014/201402/news05/20140205-08ee.html). This phrase, which had been used by both of his predecessors, strongly reminds of the principle “people are Heaven” (인내천) of the semi-religious and ultranationalist Tonghak Movement of the late 19th century, which forms the legacy of the Chondoist Party.
 Article 11: “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea shall conduct all activities under the leadership of the Worker’s Party of Korea.”
 Furthermore, there are indications that the SPA elections are used as a kind of census; since everybody is required to vote personally, the state can identify individuals who have disappeared—for example, by defecting to China (“Why does autocratic North Korea hold elections? It’s not merely a political ruse,” New Focus International, January 24, 2014, http://newfocusintl.com/autocratic-north-korea-hold-elections-merely-political-ruse).