North Korean Elections: An Exercise in Futility

by Michelle Bovee

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.



A North Korean election poster (Yonhap/UPI). 


"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.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

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  • commented 2015-08-09 11:29:27 -0400
    I don’t understand what this has to do with expanding discourse and understanding of American foreign policy in Korea. This is typical click-bit we see in every news analysis on any given day of the week – not a professional-grade analysis.

    First, it completely lacks proper context. In Asian culture, the people do not see themselves as individuals in the political system, but a piece of the political system. Thats why socialism and Confucianism and nationalism have always flourished in Asia. Who are we to criticize their way of life?

    Second, your facts are all wrong. There’s no punishment for treason associated with elections. Elections are used more for accountability purposes, than to gauge political dissent. Indeed, most North Koreans support their government to the death, and not because they are forced to, but because they are the only government that has ever been there to protect them from the outside world.

    Third, I find this piece to fall into a more problematic ethnocentrism than the first fallacy, because you mentioned children’s role in the political process. Are you aware that American children also participate in the political process? Have you ever been to TRADOC and seen American children firing machine guns on family day? Imagine how they see that. It is all relative.

    Forth, North Koreans are not malnourished, despite whatever propaganda you have heard. There is no indication that their population has done anything but steadily increase since the 1990’s. Reports this year indicate an increase in caloric intake per person. Given their size, and the amount of energy expended per person, their diet is sufficient. But yes, they do need outside assistance. That is the price of isolation.

    Fifth, North Korea’s nuclear program may be unacceptable, but it is not illegal. In 1957 the US illegally abrogated Sec. 13(d) of the Armistice, allowing nuclear weapons on the peninsula. North Korea is surrounded by the constant threat to its existence, so felt necessary to make the sacrifices to acquire them. Which, BTW, it is of importance to note that Songun policy has been replaced with Byungjjn policy – which means equal development of the economy and defense. And since the policy began, North Korea has tripled their economic zones and opened to the world for trade.

    Sixth, North Korea’s unwillingness to welcome Ban Ki-moon to the country is a result of their concern that he wanted to leverage a Chaenbol front. As you may recall, his request came on the heels of numerous South Korean Chaebols coming together requesting attempt to set up an office in Pyongyang. They see North Korea as mineral, and cheap labor rich and want to exploit that.

    Finally, General Hyun was not executed for falling asleep, and especially not executed by machine gun fire. They wouldn’t even waste bullets for that. He was executed for plotting to sabotage Kim Jong-un’s reforms. Kim Jong-un has purged and executed hardliners – not “good people.” There are factions in the country who do not support the reforms he has adopted. He is stifling dissent.

    I pose to you that the Korean War is the most advanced propaganda war known to human history. This piece seeks nothing more than yet another opportunistic demonization of a so-called enemy that has called for peace with the United States for decades after the United States committed crimes against humanity against it by killing over 2 million non-combatant, innocent civilians.

    I am shocked and bewildered that YPFP would publish something like this. YPFP seeks to promote understanding for more pragmatic foreign policy, so why would they publish something so opportunistic, ethnocentric, and propagating of the beating of the war drums that is the current trend in Washington? It is truly beyond me.

    I would be more than happy to give YPFP a lecture on North Korea, as I feel this is a topic of utmost importance in the fact that it is so misunderstood and the history of the unending Korean War has been one of tragic suffering that is often poured salt on by ethnocentric western understanding.