Voting is compulsory for everyone over the age of 17 in North Korea
Pre-approved candidates are selected for various parts of the administration
It is also an unofficial census, checking citizens are where they should be
It’s called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. But any real notions of democracy end with the name.
North Koreans headed to the polls at the weekend to cast their ballots in elections for local representatives on provincial, city, and county People’s Assemblies.
Citizens were not asked to make a choice – the results had already been decided by Kim Jong Un’s central government.
Voters were handed ballot papers but didn’t mark them. They would have instead deposited them in a ballot box, signifying their support for the pre-approved candidates.
Defector Kim Kwang-jin explained that their most important job is to show up.
That’s because voting is compulsory for everyone over the age of 17. Failing to take advantage of the opportunity to show support for the government is tantamount to treason.
“It is regarded as political offence, so it is taken more seriously than economic crimes,” said Kim. “It means that, politically, someone is against the regime.”
As such, state media usually reports a near 100% turnout, with about 100% of the electorate voting in support of the pre-selected candidates.
A North Korean election is also an unofficial census. Authorities use it to make sure all citizens are where they’re supposed to be.
“Before going in, we usually did not check the list of candidates,” said Kim, “But I would try to be checked by others to show that I am taking part in election.”
Because election day is a public holiday, Kim said his friends and family would gather and enjoy the day off.
“Residential organizations would force us to come out and dance,” he added.
It’s also a propaganda opportunity for the regime – showing its happy citizens exercising their democratic rights and throwing their support behind the Kim regime.
The people they are “electing” this time around will have four-year terms, but wield very little political power.
“They rarely meet,” explained Adam Cathcart, an analyst at the University of Leeds in the UK.
“Kim Jong Il was famous for not gathering these bodies. They’re not decision-making bodies; they’re validating bodies.”
Still, observers would have been looking out for any hints about the kind of people Kim is promoting.
The young leader has reportedly been demoting, purging, and even ordering the executions of some of the elite leftover from his father’s regime. There may be signs of generational change at the local level too.