March 9, 2014 – North Koreans vote on Sunday in a pre-determined election for a rubber-stamp parliament – an exercise that doubles as a national head count and may offer clues to power shifts in Pyongyang.
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 is the first election to the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) under the leadership of Kim Jong-Un, 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 is standing 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.
Many top Korean officials are members of the parliament, and the election is an opportunity to see if any are removed from the ballot sheet.
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 – the most dramatic example being the execution of his powerful uncle and political mentor Jang Song-Thaek in December on charges of treason and corruption.
“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” or “no” for 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 percent 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.
Kim Jong-Un has ramped up border security in an effort to curb defections, but more than 1,500 made it to South Korea last year via China.
Ahn Chan-Il, a former 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.